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Celebrating Illumination Award Winner: Michelle T. Boone

Every year, the Chicago Loop Alliance Foundation presents an Illumination Award to a selfless civic and community leader who through their ideas, leadership and counsel has increased the experience and well-being for the Loop businesses, residents and visitors. This year’s Illumination Award recipient is Michelle T. Boone, Commissioner of the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE). Michelle will be presented the Illumination Award at Chicago Loop Alliance Foundation’s Illumination Gala on September 25.

We sat down with Michelle to talk about Chicago’s vibrant cultural landscape and her involvement in making Chicago a great city for arts and culture.

What was the process like creating the Chicago Cultural Plan?  

We developed the plan from the ground up. It didn’t start with a set of ideals generated from this office or from the Mayor’s office; instead it incorporated the thoughts and ideas of the people of Chicago. We asked people directly what it is they wanted to see in the Cultural Plan. A number of those conversations took place in the Loop, but also out in neighborhoods throughout the city. No matter the location, the sentiments were pretty much the same. People wanted to have access to high quality arts experiences in their own neighborhoods, people wanted to have more exposure of the arts for their children in the schools, and people wanted to do whatever they could for Chicago to be firmly cemented as one of the world’s cities for arts and culture.

As it relates to the Loop, the Chicago Loop isn’t just a shopping and dining destination. It really is a neighborhood, and today it’s populated with families and residents who care about having access to the arts, not just to high end arts like the symphony or theatre, but even accessible arts for free. I think that’s a big part of what the Chicago Loop Alliance has been doing through their ACTIVATE programs. It really helps extend a lot of the goals of the Chicago Cultural Plan in providing access to free high quality arts and cultural experiences to residents and communities. Your community in particular just happens to be the Loop.

What are some of your favorite projects you have been involved with in the Loop and throughout the city? 

One of my favorite projects is our Night Out in the Parks initiative. Over the course of the summer there are over 1,000 free program opportunities available, from experiencing Shakespeare in the park to the Joffrey Ballet.  I love the democratic way that the arts are provided to everybody; it brings people together, it introduces residents to resources that are within their own neighborhood, and it’s a great way for these arts organizations to do some audience development.

One of my other favorite projects, which people don’t normally think of our department as being a provider of, is the Farmers’ Markets that happens at Daley Plaza. The fact that you can get this great wonderful produce weekly and do it under the magnificent Picasso – that’s pretty amazing.

Since 2012, you’ve worked closely with Chicago Loop Alliance as a member of Special Service Area #1 Commission. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?

I think for me the best part of being on the Commission is that it reminds me to think about the work that we do as being a service for the entire city, but that we’re also a neighbor and a member of the Loop community. Having the interactions with colleagues that are a part of the Commission reminds me and reconnects me in a way that just the work alone won’t do. It is great to be reminded about not just the challenges, but the excitement of initiatives being developed by members from the hotel community, retail community, arts organizations, businesses, and other city agencies. They are all working towards making the Loop a more vibrant place.

Also, to be pushed to think of creative solutions collectively to ensure that the Loop continues to thrive and become even more of a destination for residents and for visitors. I think initiatives like Change for the Better and the Street Team are really thoughtful solutions to real pressing urban issues. It’s not just about addressing homelessness, but becoming a resource. It’s not about kicking people out to pretty up the street, but really putting in the hard work and time to direct people to resources to improve their situation. That only comes from a really thoughtful strategy and it’s great to be a part of the team that cares so much, to actually try to do something about it.

Can you tell us about your involvement with the Chicago Architecture Biennial and why this is an exciting time for Chicago?

It started with the idea from the Mayor and his mission to attract 55 million visitors to our city by 2020. We looked at what the cultural strengths of the city and we very quickly came to architecture. We were shocked to learn that no other city in North America had ever done an Architecture Biennial before. If any city were to do one of course that should be Chicago given our history. We pulled together many of the thought leaders in Chicago and even nationally and decided to try and present something unique and different and one that would really have some resonance not just with the field and the sector, but create an event that would also connect the citizens of Chicago. The Chicago Architecture Biennial will be the largest survey of contemporary architecture ever presented in North America, the first and the largest.

How have Chicago Loop Alliance Foundation’s arts and placemaking initiatives aligned with the city’s programming?

Placemaking is a huge initiative for the city, not just something that our department is involved with, but also the Department of Transportation with their People Plazas initiative, this idea about transforming under-utilized space in a way that makes it an asset for the community. It doesn’t have to be a big bold programming idea like ACTIVATE, but just installing the tables and chairs on the plaza between Wacker and Lake Street. Who would have thought that people would actually make that a destination to go and enjoy their lunch? Small gestures mean a lot; it makes up for a much more dynamic space in the end. Placemaking is huge for the city because placemaking brings people together.


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