Gray Center project hosts June 7 symposium on archives of socially engaged art

Rebecca Zorach and Daniel Tucker gained more than historical insight when they began interviewing artists three years ago as co-directors of “Never the Same,” an experimental archiving project supported by the University of Chicago’s Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry to capture tales of Chicago’s politically and socially engaged arts practices. Zorach, professor of art history, romance languages, and the College, and Tucker, a visiting instructor in art history, are currently Mellon Fellows for Arts Practice and Scholarship at the Gray Center.


The project began as a collection of oral histories but quickly evolved into more. “During our conversations, we talked about how they approached themes of activism and transformation through art, and many of them wanted to give us not only their stories but also things that related to what they were talking about,” said Zorach.

“Some of them had been hanging onto ephemera for years, worried what would happen if they wound up in a traditional institutional archive. Would people know they were there? Would they be able to get access to them?” Zorach said, explaining that many of these materials are collections of brochures, posters, postcards, booklets, zines, media, and other artworks. “They wanted to see this material preserved, but kept available and alive in a way.”

Tucker, an artist and writer who specializes in social movement documentaries, said most of what is being archived at the Never the Same project is by living artists and activists here in Chicago. “It is a locally specific archive, and that means that the people who live, work and play in the city should be able to engage with it, add to it and help determine how it is going to be used by others. This is what makes it a ‘living archive.’”

As it continues to develop as an experimental project, Never the Same is among a growing number of non-traditional, grassroots archives within and outside of academia. Representatives from some of the most notable and dynamic of these will gather for a symposium at the University’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts on Friday, June 7.

“We’re bringing together people from different models of grassroots archives to talk about what they went through in getting started and what kinds of challenges and opportunities they’ve dealt with,” Zorach said. “We hope to do some brainstorming about what our project should look like as an archive and think through some of the broader issues of interest and relevance to anyone doing this kind of work.”

“As a project and a symposium, “Never the Same” raises a set of pressing questions— encompassing the politics of selection, documentation and institutionalization, among others—that are very much on the minds of academics, artists and community members,” said David Levin, director of the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry.

“We are delighted that Rebecca and Daniel are pursuing these questions in their Mellon Collaborative Fellowships at the Gray Center, since both the fellowship program and the Gray Center itself are dedicated to supporting experimental and transformative collaborations between artists and scholars,” said Levin, the Addie Clark Harding Professor of Germanic Studies, Cinema & Media Studies, Theater and Performance Studies, and the College. 

The symposium will feature panelists from grassroots archives throughout North America, as well as Chicago-based collections such as the Media Burn Archive. Sara Chapman, AB ’04, Media Burn’s executive director, said she is looking forward to exploring the unique challenges and attributes of independent archives such as hers.

“Larger institutional archives have a lot of long-term support but not necessarily the flexibility, the freedom and resources to do some exciting things,” Chapman said. “In institutional archives, they have to decide if a collection is worth cataloging, then send it up the chain and write a grant. And at smaller archives we can do what’s important to us right at the moment.”

Chaitra Powell, a HistoryMakers Archival Fellow at the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum in Culver City, Calif., agrees. “There’s no red tape here,” Powell said of the independently held collections of objects, documents and memorabilia about African American history and culture. “You can walk in and talk to the archivist that will be handling your materials.”

This is especially important today, according to symposium participants. “We’re in an age where not only is the content being created much faster, but it also disappears more quickly," said Chapman. "Because a box of papers can sit there for 100 years, maybe 200 years, and nothing will happen to it. But a videotape or a digital file will be gone very quickly if you don’t do anything with them. So there’s a more urgent need for curators and preservationists to step in before the material’s lost,” Chapman added.

Despite being able to move more quickly to preserve material, grassroots archives face greater fundraising challenges than traditional facilities. “We have to gain the trust of donors that we do have the same sort of stability that a university affiliated archive does. It can be harder for us to get our general operating funding to support our rent, our electricity, our staff and things like that because funders tend to only support new projects,” Chapman said.

Allison Shein, Creative Audio Archive Manager of the Chicago-based Experimental Sound Studio, said she plans to share her archive’s experiences with nontraditional fundraising tools like online crowd funding campaigns. “We did well with a Kickstarter campaign,” Shein said. “We launched it as a way to show larger funding agencies that we are viable to the community, which worked.” She said the project was funded within two weeks, and it  received a major grant from the MacArthur Foundation Fund for Arts and Culture at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

Chapman said she plans to discuss how Media Burn uses its website and a weekly video blog series to give worldwide accessibility to previously unseen local gems. “It’s pretty amazing to be bringing this stuff out of boxes,” Chapman said.

One of the archive’s most recent video blogs was a 1993 tour of the influential punk literary journal The Baffler, which at the time was based in Hyde Park, and an interview with founding editor Thomas Frank. “The video would have died in the next 10 years or so if we hadn’t digitized it,” she said. “So that’s kind of cool to be digging out things like that and letting people around the world see them for the first time.”   

A longtime curator of one of the oldest grassroots archives in the world, the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, Karen Stanworth said she thinks the symposium will help define both the role of grassroots archives and activism itself.

“I am particularly interested in the symposium as a way of thinking about what it means to have a group of young activists decide to archive their activities,” Stanworth said. “It's a kind of self-consciousness that I find fascinating, and which holds the potential to raise very relevant questions for young activists today.”