Tourists gather outside the Art Institute of Chicago. ISTOCK/Patty C.
By James Cuno, President and CEO, J. Paul Getty Trust.
Why have New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles remained such vital centers of trade and finance over the years, constantly reinventing themselves to meet the ever-changing needs of the world’s economy? In great part because they have always welcomed immigrants hungry for work and cultural freedom and, in the process, not always easily but ultimately successfully, have built a dynamic, multilingual, and cosmopolitan community open to all that the world has to offer.
My wife and I lived in Chicago for seven years, from 2004 to 2011. We came to know it well and to feel a part of it quickly, easily. In its first century, it was one of the fastest growing cities in the world, doubling every decade through most of the 19th century. By 1890, the city that had had only 30,000 residents at mid-century was the fifth largest city in the world, comprising large numbers of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Mexico. Today its population is almost three million and with large numbers of immigrant populations from Bosnia, India, Nigeria, and Southeast Asia. Almost 30 percent of its population speaks a language other than English at home. For the six-county area that comprises Greater Chicago, the five most common languages after English are Spanish, Polish, Arabic, Chinese, and Tagalog, a native Philippine language.
What helps Chicago attract and integrate its ever more diverse population? Among other things, I would argue its cultural institutions.
I had the great honor to have directed the Art Institute of Chicago for seven years. I came to understand it as a place where the city’s many and diverse residents meet to explore their differences and similarities and find common ground. I remember experiencing this profoundly one day.
It was 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon. From my office I could see dozens of people standing in line waiting to enter the museum. We were open and had been open for six hours already by then. The people waiting in line could have entered then; others did. But every Thursday at five o’clock we suspended our admission price and allowed people into the museum for free. And so often they waited, crowds of them, like those now in line visible from my window. In thirty minutes and over the course of the next three hours, they were joined by thousands of others, people of all ages and interests, from a broad range of ethnic, religious, social, and economic backgrounds, some experienced in museum going, others with little or no preparation, all of them coming to look at works of art.
I found this moving, even inspiring. Life is hard and the people outside my window were busy. Likely they had worked all day, fed their families, and traveled downtown by train. Likely too they were tired and had come to the museum when there were many other, equally free cultural activities nearby. Why did they make such an effort to come to the museum?
Out of curiosity, for education, inspiration, entertainment, distraction, comfort, safety, a sense of community; to see beautiful things, new and different things; to have their view of the world enlarged, feel a part of something important—the long and richly textured history of human existence.
And what did we offer them in return? Our collections, often displayed with helpful and informative labels and accompanied by audio guides or gallery docents who tell them something about the artists who made the works on view, the era in which they were made, their subjects, their place in the history of art, and, not to be overlooked, their authenticity; special exhibitions that focus on the work of a particular artist, artistic period, subject matter, or regional culture; exhibitions that bring together works from of art from disparate collections that couldn’t otherwise be seen in just this way; sometimes lectures, concerts, films, literary events, or educational workshops designed to enrich the experience of our collections; but always, always, works of art in all of their stubborn reality properly cared for and presented so as to provoke investigation and inquiry into the realities of the past as an antidote to a wistful or determined nostalgia for a past that never existed precisely as it is said to have done.
People were coming to the museum because they hungered to have their world enlarged, their life enriched by the experience of new and strange, wonderful things, and sense made of the differences they confront in the polyglot, multiethnic world in which they live, not just as a condition of life lived throughout history, since people first traveled beyond their villages and came into contact and forged relations with people and cultures unfamiliar to them, but still today, as people move about the world in pursuit of new experiences and better futures.
Museums in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other global cities are public places where different peoples gather to confront the world's many cultures. And in this way, they promote cultural understanding and tolerance of difference in others.
As we watch political rhetoric this presidential electoral season resort to the most violent of metaphors to describe the differences between cultures, we should promote the promise of our museums as places of community and understanding of our undeniably intertwined similarities.
James Cuno is the president and CEO of J. Paul Getty Trust. He will be speaking at the 2016 Chicago Forum on Global Cities.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.
Former Bank of London governor Lord Mervyn King draws from lessons he learned during the 2008 financial crisis to discuss how to manage the current economic uncertainty.
A look ahead to winter and spring 2020 nonfiction books that might shed some light on the world after COVID-19.
The Wall Street Journal’s Dasl Yoon, reporting from Seoul, joins us to explain what other countries can learn from South Korea’s innovative approaches to successfully flatten the curve of new infections – without shutting down the economy.
POLITICO’s Ryan Heath joins Deep Dish to explain the lessons the United States can learn from countries that are further ahead in the COVID-19 infection timeline.
With borders now closed and countries like Italy in an increasingly restrictive nation-wide lockdown under the threat of the novel coronavirus, Europe is facing a crisis likely unparalleled since the end of World War II. This compounds an already disruptive year, following the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, and increasingly calls into question the continued relevance of the political and economic bloc.
As COVID-19 spreads around the world, non-resident senior fellow on global cities Robert Muggah shares his insights into the spread and impact of pandemics, why they are becoming more common, and how cities can help minimize threats now and into the future.
The Midwest is caught in the painful shift from one economy to another, and its divided fortunes show this. It is a split between winners and losers, between well-educated city dwellers and the left behind, angry denizens of the old economy. All this has big impacts that are economic and social – and political.
While the political importance of the American Midwest in 2020 is clear, the region of 70 million people is all too often written off as an economic has-been and a cultural backwater. The truth is a different, more complicated story.
Yemen's years-long war pits Iran-backed Houthis against a coalition of Saudi-led forces seeking to restore Yemen's internationally recognized government, and the United States is involved as well.
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Levant Affairs and Special Envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn joins Deep Dish to explain the Trump administration’s plan in war-torn Syria.
It is too early to conclude that the epidemic will shake the Communist Party’s grip. Once the “people’s war” has defeated the epidemic, the authoritarian regime may turn out to have become even more powerful. But this crisis has made a few things clear. It illustrates how cities are increasingly important actors in addressing pressing global challenges. It also exemplifies how central-local government relations can shape a country’s response to major epidemic outbreaks.
After a decade and a half as German chancellor, Angela Merkel has said she will step down in 2021. In the latest #AskIvo, Council President Ivo Daalder looks at three big issues rising to the surface in German politics on the eve of her departure.
Mira Rapp-Hooper and Ivo Daalder discuss the state of US alliances at a moment when new concerns are flaring up from the Philippines and East Asia to Europe.
For years, violence and crime have led to poor living conditions in the country and mass emigration. Rosa Anaya joins Deep Dish to discuss her work rehabilitating inmates and gang members in El Salvador.
Do Chicagoans truly understand the important role the US Navy plays around the world and the increasing challenges to its previously unimpeded supremacy of the seas?