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Engaging Collections: AFC Chicago Ethnic Arts Collection Gathering

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Polish Constitution Day Parade, Chicago, Illinois, May 7, 1977. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas AFC 1981/004: 189 Find the original here!

With 31 digitized AFC collections now online at, AFC staff has long been thinking of ways to promote and enhance meaningful uses of them. In the past couple of years, these discussions have focused on the digitized, ethnographic survey collections, such as the Montana Folklife Survey, South Central Georgia Folklife Project, Rhode Island Folklife Project, and the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project, which have been recently made available online. Importantly, this has also included brainstorming approaches for re-engaging local, source communities who are represented within these collections, and who could potentially benefit from these rich resources by using them for projects and programs of their own.

Breathing life into archival collections, especially those inextricably linked to living cultural knowledges and expressions, is certainly boosted through the digitization and online availability of the collections themselves. Indeed, when they can be looked at and listened to from anywhere in the world, opportunities exist for connections to be made and knowledge to be produced that, perhaps, would not if such collections were only cared for in boxes, behind the scenes. Nonetheless, we have been grappling with some questions concerning the limits of online accessibility – that is, is it enough to make a collection accessible online? As my colleague Todd Harvey recently put it: “placing collections online and steering people to them can end up being rather passive; we made it accessible and that’s what we do, but how can we go further to ensure that communities, researchers, and the public truly benefit from using them?”

As an exercise in taking those “extra” steps and attempting to engage/re-engage source communities with an online survey collection, we chose to focus on the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection as a pilot initiative. The collection is based on a cultural research and documentation survey conducted in 1977 by 14 fieldworkers and 2 photographers, organized by the AFC and co-sponsored with the Illinois Arts Council (IAC; now known as the Illinois Arts Council Agency). The survey project was initiated in 1976 to meet several goals of both the IAC and the AFC. In particular, the IAC was interested in developing an ethnic arts program and was in discussions with Bess Lomax Hawes, then Director of the Folk Arts Program at the National Endowment of the Arts, about future financial support. A crucial first step to establishing this ethnic arts program was to embark on an ethnographic survey “to determine the resources and needs of the greater Chicago area ethnic community,” as noted in the project’s final report. In turn, the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project substantially helped to create what has become the IAC’s Ethnic and Folk Arts Program, continuing today through such funding opportunities as the Master/Apprentice Program (MAP).

The report also outlines the AFC’s goals at the time, stating:

The [AFC] saw the fulfillment of this [project] as an opportunity to demonstrate the ability of professional folklorists to observe and analyze community life at the grass roots. The Center also envisioned the project as an excellent chance for a team of folklorists to document ethnic folklife in an urban environment – a venture which, except for the Calumet Region Folklore Project conducted by the Indiana University Folklore Institute, had no precedent in American folklore studies.

The project was also inspired by what AFC folklorists perceived as a common misconception about first and second-generation Americans in relation to their cultural heritages:

Although Americans had long been aware of the numerous cultural groups that had immigrated to this country, it was usually presumed that the language, customs, and traditions brought over by the immigrant generation would soon be forgotten as the American-born generations melted into mainstream society. This supposition, however, did not always prove true. Although some people changed their names and shed all the ‘old ways,’ many continued to practice their imported languages and traditions, sometimes creating newly synthesized, ethnic-American traditions. For those who did, public recognition for such tenacity was minimal.

In terms of its ethnographic scope, the collection is by no means comprehensive and, as it turns out, Chicago has changed considerably since the 1970s! Nevertheless, comprising thousands of photographs, interviews, musical recordings, field notes, and post-fieldwork reports, it provides significant insights into the cultural cityscape (and beyond) during that period, namely through its inclusion of cultural, spiritual, and arts practices of roughly 25 ethnic communities – from Polish-American parades and Japanese tea ceremonies to Greek-American embroidering traditions and the African-American musical expressions of Jazz Alley, on the South Side. The collection serves as an important resource for cultural communities, as well as broader arts and culture organizations, to use and be inspired by in a number of ways, but how can we help to make those worthwhile connections?

For almost the last year, the AFC has been working alongside Chicago-based folklorists Lisa Rathje and Susan Eleuterio to plan and facilitate an event in Chicago to convene state, regional, and local stakeholders, including community-based cultural organizations, of which the city has many. Held on September 28th, 2018 at the Harold Washington Library Center of the Chicago Public Library, the AFC Chicago Ethnic Arts Collection Gathering was designed to:

  • Bring together allied agencies, organizations, and initiatives to get to know each other, bringing to light the range of resources and funding that exists in the greater Chicago area for community-based programs and projects focused on traditional arts and culture
  • Foster discussions on how archival collections focused on the cultural history and traditional arts of Chicago can be better engaged with and shared at the local level and among the wider public
  • Develop relationships with on-the-ground cultural community organizations as a means of understanding how the AFC Chicago Collection can be useful to them.

The all-day convening successfully brought together representatives of the Chicago Public Library; Illinois Arts Council Agency; Illinois Humanities; Chicago Cultural Alliance, which serves as a consortium of 40 Chicago-area cultural heritage museums, centers and historical societies; the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation; the Black Metropolis Research Consortium; the Chicago Collections Consortium; and the AFC, among others.

Afternoon break-out sessions during the the AFC Chicago Ethnic Arts Collection Gathering. Photo by Michelle Stefano.

This initiative is still ongoing, and certain themes have emerged from our discussions that signal potential next steps for the AFC and collaborators to pursue as part of a second, exploratory phase in these coming months. Key themes relate to using items from the AFC Chicago Collection at the local, community level as it is now, and how it may also be used as a spark for broader, longer-term projects. Ideas on using certain collection items centered on featuring interview recordings for podcasts and neighborhood audio tours, as well as utilizing photographs for community museum exhibitions and related events.

With respect to longer-term engagement, participants were enthusiastic about digitally mapping the AFC Chicago Collection, with a view toward further documentation and representation of the cultural changes the city has undergone during these past decades and through to today (as well as in its surrounding suburban neighborhoods). Here, participants expressed a desire for a mapping project that can capture the multi-layered textures and changes of Chicago’s rich cultures over time, neighborhood by neighborhood, and up to the present. This can also include mapping similar archival collections cared for by collaborating organizations and institutions. On a related note, the idea of providing support in ethnographic methods training for community members interested in documenting their culture also presented itself as a way to work more closely with community-based organizations.

Back in the late 1970s, the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project was one of the first in a series of ethnographic surveys organized by AFC, laying the groundwork for similar projects in other U.S. regions, such as those listed earlier. It is our hope that this current initiative in ‘taking it back’ to source communities and contexts can help to develop models for similar efforts with the other survey collections. In any case, one thing is for sure: this is an exciting project that can unfold in numerous ways, with, of course, the guidance of those who know the city and their communities best…so you will have to stay tuned!

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