Art Works Blog

Building Bridges at Chicago's Field Museum

Washington, DC

The annual Chinese New Year Parade in Chicago's Chinatown is just one of the city's many neighborhood festivals. Photo by multisanti via Flickr

One of the stops that we made in Chicago on the Art Works Tour (where we were hosted by the MacArthur Foundation) was to the Field Museum?s Center for Cultural Understanding and Change, which is headed by Alaka Wali who?s an anthropologist. And Dr. Wali not only works internationally for the Field Museum, but she also works on the ground in Chicago trying to understand the ways that Chicago communities are changing and the ways that art is experienced in every day life. So she has a research center that is looking at the way people actually live in communities, and the important role that art plays in their life.

One of the things that Dr. Wali has discovered is that artmaking in informal settings---so not in the big marble palaces, not in the symphony orchestras, the ballet---but the art that happens in churches, in homes, in the park is really an important part of the civic infrastructure. Art is part of people?s ability not only to maintain their culture but also the bridge from which you can go from one culture to another. Among other things art nurtures talent, it allows for innovation, and it?s also a site of knowledge transfer, where people actually learn about each other through the art.

You know how in the community there?s always someone who knows everything that?s going down and there?re always places in the community that are informal?sometimes it?s the barbershop, sometimes it?s a certain coffee shop? In all those places knowledge is exchanged, and when art is involved, cultural knowledge is exchanged. So the drumming circle, the gospel choir, the festival in the streets, that?s not really just some nice amenity, but it?s an important part of keeping the whole community and its relationship to other communities in a healthy state. Because if you understand a person?s heart, you?re going to trust them more. You?re going to actually see them more, not in a stereotype but as a dancer, as a performer, as a singer. As Dr. Wali says, ?The arts help people envision who their community is, who they are, and that when you have a situation where you?re making art together, people will come together across all different lines.?

For example, if you?re really interested in African drumming, you might go into a neighborhood where you wouldn?t normally go, you might not normally think you?d be welcome. But you know you are welcome because there?s a master drummer, and everyone?s coming from all over the city to study with that master drummer. So all of those people are part of a community, and that community is created by the arts. This is a really important thing for a healthy community infrastructure. It makes the community safer. It bridges all kinds of misunderstanding.

Dr. Wali?s ultimate goal is to look at the things that help create livable places for people. And she thinks that small and mid-sized arts organizations are really important for creating livable places for just regular folks. And that people recognize and appreciate each other's creativity, and that?s another important thing that art in public places and art in communities can bring to people.

One of the things that the Field Museum has done through the CCUC is that they have created for the first time ever something called the Chicago Cultural Alliance, which is made up of more than a dozen small and mid-sized organizations coming together for this partnership. The Swahili Institute of Chicago, the Swedish American Museum, the Filipino American Historical Society of Chicago, the Brazilian Cultural Center of Chicago are just some of the groups in the alliance. Chicago is famous for being a city of neighborhoods, ethnic neighborhoods, so bringing all those groups together in a partnership means they can talk about their common issues as small and mid-sized organizations and also share programming across boundaries. It?s pretty unusual for a major museum like that to give its time and attention to all its smaller colleagues in that way. So it?s a really generous and generative program that they have there at the Field Museum. It?s making a real contribution to Chicago culture.

What that means for us here at the NEA, I think, is that we need to look at our museums in terms of the ways that they?re really thinking about interacting with and enriching multiple communities wherever they?re located. So what?s their local role in creating cultural vitality and creating a sustainable and rich place where all are welcome? Not all museums are lucky to have anthropologists on staff, but maybe when museums think about arts education and when they think about outreach, instead of thinking about information flowing from the museum to the people, they might also think about what is the cultural system of the different demographics of the place where they live and how does that system work and how can they embrace that system and become a part of it?

Visit the Field Museum?s website to learn more about the museum and the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change.

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