Institute Overview

Institute Description

Art and Public Culture in Chicago provides a concentrated set of loosely chronological case studies that illuminate how the arts are produced through the collective work of neighborhoods, cohorts, and political movements. These case studies range from the founding of civic-minded arts organizations at the turn of the century, to the flourishing of cross-racial entertainment venues, the art and literature supported by the Works Progress Administration, and the political activism of the 1960s and onward.  We are particularly interested in the tensions created between small-scale, vernacular practices and Chicago’s mainstream cultural institutions, such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago.  With a particular focus on working-class African American neighborhoods, the institute will consider whether and how the arts bridge divides between public and private, between elite and working-class cultures, and across race and gender.

Our Institute will examine how and why various modes of creative expression have functioned as means of civic engagement, such as when a public sculpture becomes a site of protest and performance, when a poem is voiced aloud to summon an audience, or when art production is understood as a process of cultural uplift.  By engaging with the concepts of protest, performance, and the public as defined by different communities and institutions, we will situate Chicago’s own history of social conflict and cultural production.  At the same time, these inquiries will allow us to consider a broadened context of the role public culture in American urban spaces beyond Chicago.

You can access a preliminary syllabus for the institute below.  (Please note that the syllabus is subject to minor changes.)

Syllabus: Art and Public Culture in Chicago

Click here for a catalog listing of the Newberry’s impressive collections related to Chicago’s art and culture.

Institute Outline

Art and Public Culture in Chicago will explore four ways that ideas of the public have informed cultural production in the 20th century.  We will begin by establishing the idea of a public function for art as upheld by Chicago’s early-twentieth-century cultural institutions.  We will explore the beliefs that visual art and literature could uplift the masses and that cultural activity was a necessary antidote to the industrial utilitarianism that has dominated the city’s identity. This idealism informed the endeavors of many elite Chicagoans devoted to the arts during the first decades of the twentieth century, not only the benefactors of the Art Institute of Chicago, but also reformers like Jane Addams and Helen Gates Starr, the founders of the city’s first settlement house, Hull-House, and the editor Harriet Monroe, who launched the city’s most important literary periodical, Poetry. Art for the masses, as our institute will illuminate, is an idea that continues to inspire many of Chicago’s civic projects through the present.

We will then look at public institutions, focusing on areas of public funding for the arts and the establishment of new institutions during the New Deal era. We study the Federal Arts Project and the Federal Writers Project, both of which included dynamic, cross-racial cohorts of artists and writers who contributed to the city’s self-definition during the years of the Great Depression. One legacy of those years is the South Side Community Art Center, the only surviving, continuously-operated art center founded under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. We will also consider the 1940 American Negro Exposition, billed as the “first Negro World’s Fair,” which employed the talents of numerous writers and artists in a variety of dioramas, murals, and visual displays that sought to inventory the progress made by African Americans since slavery. Though the Negro Expo fell short of its goals due to low attendance, it set the stage for later collective cultural projects in black Chicago.

The third unit will focus on commercialized venues and their publics and will be taken up through a discussion of Ebony magazine—a glossy mass market monthly that often utilized black writers, artists, and musicians as central to its project of “raising the race.” We will examine the cultural production and politics of Chicago’s bohemian nightspots from the 1910s to the early 1960s; the role that Bronzeville’s music clubs and broader culture industry played in creating a sense of community by and for the city’s black population; and the opportunities that disco created for collaboration in public spaces, as well as the cultural and political backlash this provoked among the city’s working-class whites during the 1970s. These profit-oriented venues fostered substantially larger audiences–whether in one night or a series of performances–which made them especially important sites for the creation of vernacular public culture.

Finally, we will consider the public square and people’s art, through examples from the 1960s to the present. We will study public sculpture and community murals and the creation of “alternative” cultural spaces and new museums. We will look closely at the concurrent inauguration in 1967 of the Chicago Picasso and the Wall of Respect, a mural of African American heroes painted on the wall of a condemned building in Bronzeville. Participants will also explore murals throughout the city and how they generated substantial dialogue, whether organically generated through the mere act of painting on the street in the summertime, invited as part of a conscious artistic practice, or required as a way of establishing an authoritative decision-making process. We will end by assessing the narrative of Chicago as a global city and the question of art’s role in community development and its flip side, gentrification.  Participants will be encouraged to consider broadly how American cities–Chicago and beyond–have spurred public engagement with the arts in the 20th century.

Each week of the institute will include site visits to Chicago museums, clubs, neighborhoods, landmarks, or archives, including the world-famous Architecture Boat Tour, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, South Side Community Art Center, and Stony Island Arts Bank.

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Faculty and Participants of Making Modernism, a 2017 NEH Summer Institute, visit the South Side Community Art Center.

Research at the Newberry

Participants will be given special privileges during the institute, including a reserved space in the reading rooms, extended reading hours, and the ability to reserve items during their stay. The participants’ research will be facilitated by access to a full range of computing services. They will have wireless Internet access from workstations and printers in the library. The Newberry allows the use of personal digital cameras to photograph library materials for research and teaching purposes.