City’s smaller cultural institutions join to boost profile
By Charles Storch | Tribune reporter
February 13, 2008
Jaroslaw Hankewych finds few maps of Chicago’s cultural attractions that pinpoint his Ukrainian National Museum.
“The maps stop at Ashland Avenue. Everything west of Ashland apparently doesn’t exist,” said the president of a museum that has existed for 36 years beyond that cultural border, in Ukrainian Village.
Other area ethnic museums and heritage centers feel they, too, are on the wrong side of some arbitrary line — whether it be geographical, financial or programmatic — that consigns them to the cultural hinterlands. To fight this perception, and with confidence there is strength in numbers, 21 of them, including the Ukrainian National Museum, have banded together to form the Chicago Cultural Alliance.
“A lot of people in Chicago have no idea there are little jewels of ethnic museums all over the city,” said Kerstin Lane, the alliance’s board president. “When these museums can go out and tell the city, state and others, ‘We exist,’ then each of them will be strengthened.
“The big guys in Chicago” — the 10 institutions on Chicago Park District land — “have their Museums in the Park,” said Lane, former head of the Swedish American Museum Center, an Andersonville neighborhood fixture and alliance member. Though the small museums can’t compare in clout, she said, “we can still get together.”
The alliance was formed last year, but it will announce itself at an event set for Friday morning in the Chicago History Museum.
The History Museum is one of the alliance’s partner institutions, along with Jane Addams Hull-House Museum and the Field Museum.
The Field has been the alliance’s midwife. For a decade, its Cultural Connections program has helped area ethnic museums and cultural centers collaborate on programs, providing an anthropological context to their cross-cultural dialogues.
Value of an alliance
The pairing could be unusual, as when the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture and the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center explored appearance and identity in their respective cultures.
“There was a lot of relationship-building,” said Rosa Cabrera, public involvement manager for the Field’s Center for Cultural Understanding and Change, which runs Cultural Connections.
Those relationships led the museums to see the value of an alliance. But it took years before the alliance took form, largely because some museums were so thinly staffed they couldn’t spare people to attend all the planning meetings.
“The partners realize by uniting they could have a stronger voice in Chicago” on such matters as tourism, school curricula and funding, said Cabrera.
Jan Lorys, director of the Polish Museum of America, said the alliance may be able to demonstrate how much its members contribute to the local economy.
“You need one voice saying this,” he said.
“In this city, it has to be a dollars-and-cents argument.”
Lorys’ museum, in the city’s West Town neighborhood, dates to 1935; some alliance members are just a few years old. Some members have their own buildings, permanent collections and full-time staffs. Others operate out of private homes and rely on volunteers to help present programs around the city.
Some have operating budgets so minuscule they can’t qualify for grants from public and private funders. Lane said foundations may find it more efficient to channel grants through the alliance, which is seeking tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service.
Chicago’s Joyce Foundation has given $30,000 to allow many alliance members to undergo an assessment by the Arts & Business Council of Chicago of their skills and needs.
Some museums see the alliance as an opportunity to pool resources. Maria Drell, who runs the Brazilian Cultural Center of Chicago out of her home, said she is talking with two other nomadic groups, the Chicago Japanese American Historical Society and the Filipino American Historical Society of Chicago, about finding a permanent space to share.
Others look to partners for inspiration.
Charles Daas, director of the 4-year-old Cambodian American Heritage Museum, said he has studied the Swedish American Museum’s Children’s Museum of Immigration as a possible model for a program at his Albany Park institution.
Sherry Williams, who runs the Bronzeville/Black Chicagoan Historical Society from her Pullman home, said she enjoys meetings with other alliance representatives.
“I get to tap their brains on what works and what doesn’t,” she said. “And I get to socialize with every nationality in Chicago.”
– – –
Chicago Cultural Alliance members (addresses are in Chicago, except where noted):
American Indian Center, 1603 W. Wilson Ave. 773-275-5871; aic-chicago.org
Arab American Action Network, 3148 W. 63rd St., 773-436-6060, aaan.org
Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, 6500 S. Pulaski Rd., 773-582-6500, lithaz.org/museums/balzekas
Brazilian Cultural Center of Chicago, 6342 N. Lakewood Ave., 312-404-7180, brazilianculturalcenter.org
Bronzeville/Black Chicagoan Historical Society, 11431 S. Forrestville Ave. #1, 773 291-9115, bronzevillehistoricalsociety.com
Cambodian American Heritage Museum, 2831 W. Lawrence Ave., 773-878-7090, cambodian-association.org
Casa Aztlan, 1831 S. Racine Ave., 312-666-5508, casaaztlan.org
Chicago Japanese American Historical Society, cjahs.org
Filipino American Historical Society of Chicago, fahsc.org
The History Makers, 1900 S. Michigan Ave., 312-674-1900, thehistorymakers.com
Indo-American Heritage Museum/Indo-American Center, 6328 N. California Ave., 773-973-4444, indoamerican.org
Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, 3015 W. Division St., 773-486-8345, iprac.org
Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox Ave., 773-282-7035, irishamhc.com
Italian Cultural Center at Casa Italia, 1621 N. 39th Ave., Stone Park, 708-345-5933, casaitaliachicago.net
Korean American Resource and Cultural Center, 2701A W. Peterson Ave., 773-506-9158, chicagokrcc.org
Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, 3001 Central St., Evanston, 847-475-1030, mitchellmuseum.org
Polish Museum of America, 984 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-384-3352, pma.prcua.org
Swahili Institute of Chicago, 10707 S. Hale Ave., 773-785-1430Swedish American Museum Center, 5211 N. Clark St., 773-728-8111, samac.org
Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, 2320 W. Chicago Ave., 773-227-5522, uima-art.org
Ukrainian National Museum, 2249 W. Superior St., 312-421-8020, ukrainiannationalmuseum.org
Source: Chicago Cultural Alliance