Northwest Business Magazine

Transform Rockford: Searching for a Cultural Plan Mandate

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It’s no secret that Rockford has a wealth of quality arts and recreation assets, but it may surprise you how they can play an important role in remaking our region.

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To those in the know, it’s no secret that Rockford has a wealth of quality arts and recreation assets – top-rated golf courses and parks, high-quality performing arts venues, an art museum, top-rated kids’ museum and lively tourism draws.

But among some locals, there’s a nagging perception that “there’s nothing to do here.”

Emily Keilback and Jennifer Smith politely disagree.

“My last job covered a 16-county region, and all the time our staff members who live in Elgin, in Aurora, in Freeport were always saying, ‘We’re going to Rockford because there’s so much to do there,’” says Keilback, who now works with Alpine Bank. “But people in Rockford are like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Keilback and Smith lead Transform Rockford’s Arts & Recreation “spoke,” one of 12 focused teams helping the nonprofit group to build a strategic plan for revitalizing Rockford. Over the past two years, their team has made some surprising discoveries.

The team began its study with a deep analysis of Rockford’s arts and recreation-related assets. In some cases, board members from the Rockford Park District and the Rockford Area Arts Council (RAAC) produced frank assessments of their own group’s strengths and weaknesses.

The team also looked toward creative hubs like Chicago, Raleigh/Durham, N.C., and Boulder, Colo.
“We came down to the fact that everything starts with a cultural plan,” says Smith, who works with Rockford University’s Northern Illinois Center for Nonprofit Excellence. “So, if the community values arts and recreation – all of those things that are key drivers for quality of life – then they will make those a priority in planning and policies. That starts with a cultural plan.”

The team found that, in the most vibrant arts communities, a cultural plan designates pathways for funding, partnerships and data benchmarking. The plan also appoints specific organizational leaders. In Rockford, the team found a disconnected network of governance, funding and collaboration.

Anne O’Keefe, president and CEO of RAAC and a member of the Arts & Recreation team, believes a cultural plan is much needed for Rockford’s transformation.

“That would be my dream,” she says.

O’Keefe and the Transform Rockford team were particularly intrigued by the divide between leadership and funding for arts and recreation. Because the Rockford Park District is a taxing body, it maintains a strong organization and funding structure. Private arts groups like RAAC, however, rely on funding from individuals, foundations, and city or state governments.

“One thing we found in looking at other successful communities is that their arts council is extremely well-funded and extremely well-organized,” says Keilback.

Although it plays a fundamental role, the cultural plan is tricky because it can’t be generated by ordinary citizens. “For a cultural plan to be accomplished, the mandate for that really needs to come from the top,” says Smith. “The city will be a key partner in that, and the county will be a key partner.”

Organization is an important starting point, but the Arts & Recreation team also uncovered a link between physical assets and local audience. “One of the things we’ll try to key in on is what are some of the infrastructure opportunities that speak to the whole?” says Smith.

Her team found justification for spreading assets through every neighborhood, but it also found an imperative for diversifying the decisionmakers. In its research, the team found that many of the city’s top arts and recreation leadership boards and executives were predominantly older white men. Nearly a third of city residents aren’t white.

“There are lots and lots of offerings for arts and recreation, but they’re not necessarily representative of the diversity in our community and our region,” says Smith.

The Arts & Recreation team has developed a series of strategies that it’s now passing on to other Transform Rockford “spoke” teams. Over the next few months, those teams will seek common threads before sharing a series of comprehensive strategies with the general public.

Thanks to the conversations sparked by Transform Rockford, O’Keefe is already noticing positive change. This spring, several area arts groups teamed up to pay homage to William Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death. It’s just one sign that walls are coming down.

“We’re having the right conversations now,” says O’Keefe. “I’ve been in this job 11 years, and I’m thrilled to see new people engaging with our arts orgnizations.”

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