2012 may be the year of the arts in Evanston. Today, Jan. 19, Rocco Landesman, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, tours the downtown area to learn of Evanston’s plans to create an arts district there. The vision of an arts district in the downtown surfaced about two years ago as one of the recommendations of a City-sponsored study about the feasibility of creating a downtown performing arts area. At that time, most interest centered on reconstituting the remnants of the Varsity Theatre on Sherman Avenue near Church Street.

As a result of those studies the vision has expanded. The former Gus Giordano dance space, rather than the Varsity Theatre site, was recommended for a performing arts space. Further recommendations included finding ways to have more private and public art downtown.

There is a lot of promise in this vision. Even in this nebulous form, the vision clearly implies hard work, collaboration and compromise. Before the music begins, the community will have to consider what should be done with other arts venues here: Should the Art Center remain in the landmark Harley Clarke mansion on the lake? If not, where should its new location be? Should the mansion remain a public asset or be sold to a private entity?

Last year, some may remember, a consortium of tenants of the Noyes Cultural Arts Center proposed to purchase that historic building for their shared use. While that proposal appears to have many exciting advantages, the question remains about what should become of the other Noyes tenants, whose rent is subsidized by the City in exchange for community service. That question – whether and how the City should continue to foster emerging artists and art groups – should be publicly discussed.

The City, arts groups, residents and businesses must analyze closely the costs and benefits of centralizing the majority of Evanston’s art, artists and art venues in a single area: What would be gained, what lost?

These are very serious questions, and a lot is at stake. Evanston has a vibrant arts community, but over the past two decades we have lost arts and arts groups to other suburbs.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz has suggested a community meeting using that plan as a framework. While we have not seen that plan, we endorse that idea as a beginning.

A concomitant goal of an arts district should be to foster the arts community so as to attract patrons and complementary businesses to the area. We understand that City personnel and private businesses will be involved in discussions and negotiations, but we urge them to include artists and art groups in these discussions as well.

Ars gratia artis

(art for art’s sake), of course, but ars gratia urbis tandem (art for the sake of the City as well).