Cultural Infrastructures

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

Infrastructures and institutions play an important role for artists as support and foil.  Many folks like to rail against government and related authority, often with justifiable frustration, but sometimes you can make deep changes working from within.  Not that long ago, most artists in Chicago learned about opportunities, events, spaces and other resources via word of mouth, a newspaper or newsletter.  If you knew the right person to call, or had time to network and ferret out what you needed, you were ahead of the game.  But, if you didn’t know who to ask, if you didn’t have access to a network through school or other affiliation, it was a lot harder to plug into the scene and connect to the resources that would help you make a living as an artist.

One of my early projects at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) was to survey Chicago artists about their space and technical assistance needs.  We learned, or more accurately, confirmed, that artists need access to community, networks, affordable and appropriate space, healthcare, time, a market for their work, training and validation.  The infrastructure of an art practice.  In focus groups and interviews we heard a common refrain: “I know the information is out there, but I don’t know where to find it”.   We determined that access to information could begin to address all these issues, empowering and validating artists themselves.  And, as a city agency, we wanted this access to be comprehensive, sustainable, flexible and available to everyone.

Chicago was ripe for a new cultural infrastructure, and the internet would provide access to it.  In 2003, DCA began to build the Chicago Artists Resource (CAR)

CAR describes the landscape of opportunity for artists in Chicago – from teaching to learning, from space to business services to community and support.  It levels the playing field so that everyone online has access to the same information, and can post their own.   We launched CAR in 2005 for visual artists, Version 2 for performing arts (music, dance, theater) in 2008, and, this fall, look for literary and spoken word.

Today, CAR is both a repository of curated content, and a vehicle for artists and the people who want to work with them to communicate with each other.  On a given month, 23,000 people visit CAR and over 5,000 use the site multiple times every day.   Jobs, calls, spaces, events, images and artist stories are community-contributed and the most active parts of the site.  Hundreds of artists share their experiences and CAR’s growing staff of Artist-Researchers, each a practicing professional, play an important role as shapers and disseminators of information.  [Hint: sign up for monthly CAR Enews and “friend” CAR on Facebook to get notified about key posts and opportunities. And, create an account to post content for free.]  In addition, because we decided to build CAR using open source software, which is shared, community-contributed, flexible and low cost, its modules are part of an international technology infrastructure.

CAR’s acceptance by the community has been hugely gratifying.  Because of its success, we’ve received numerous inquiries about replicating it in other cities, and are excited by the potential that resides in a national project, by and for artists, and the social/information infrastructure that could be created.  Technologically, the vision is for a shared CMS (Content Management System) that different cities could plug into, with each achieving a distinct site with their own identity and shared content.  Sort of like Craigslist, where each city’s is its own by default. How that will be structured organizationally is still being determined. DCA is working on that.  And, it’s been about 10 years since we surveyed artists, so it’s time to survey the community again.  Look for that this fall…on CAR.


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