Institute Overview

Making Modernism will consider the dominant stylistic features and guiding aesthetics that characterize Chicago from the turn of the century through the aftermath of the Second World War, asking how the city’s cultural output during these decades is connected to local, national, and international influences. The institute will begin by studying the persistent cultural resonances of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago—better known as the World’s Fair—which gave rise to many of the city’s key cultural institutions, clubs, and smaller arts organizations. We will then explore what scholars have called the “renaissance” of the 1910s and 1920s, particularly the work of two vital literary periodicals, Poetry magazine and the Little Review. We will look at the interracial collaborations across the arts supported by the Works Progress Administration in Chicago during the Great Depression. This time is considered the beginning of the “Chicago Black Renaissance,” a period from the 1930s through the early 1950s which has inspired a rapidly growing body of scholarship. Importantly, the institute aims for an inclusive and expansive history of modernist literature, dance, and visual art in Chicago across racial lines.

World's Columbian Exposition
The Little Review cover
Katherine Dunham flyer

Chicago helped produce some of the most important writers of the twentieth century, from Carl Sandburg and Harriet Monroe to Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks. Many Chicago writers started as journalists for the city’s newspapers, which bred sharp, recognizable voices. In a city defined by its industrial and commercial ambitions, Chicagoans were decidedly eager to build institutions that also fostered the visual arts. These include major institutions like the Art Institute of Chicago—which exhibited the controversial 1913 Armory Show—to smaller organizations like Chicago Allied Arts, inspired by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes; and the South Side Community Art Center, a vibrant nexus for local artists like Margaret Burroughs, Eldzier Cortor, Archibald Motley, and Charles White. Chicago’s tremendous growth during the first half of the twentieth century created new capital, potential patronage, and cultural vitality, drawing artists and writers to a city defined by change. The relative newness of Chicago’s cultural institutions (compared to those in major east coast and European capitals) was often met by a sense of liberation: by not being Paris or London or New York, Chicago offered a freedom to artists and writers that was paradoxically fertile.

Gwendolyn Brooks, Riot, with frontispiece by Jeff Donaldson

Institute faculty will encourage 25 participants to engage actively and critically with the Newberry’s archival collections in order to understand the networks that contributed to the explosion of cultural styles associated with the modernist period. The institute aims to attract participants who will utilize the library’s archives to develop new course syllabi and for independent research. From the records of Chicago’s newspapers and journalists, clubs and arts organizations, dance and theatre companies, famous and not-so-famous writers, editors, choreographers, artists, book designers, and publishers, the Newberry’s collections on this topic are unsurpassed. Particularly relevant collections include the records of the Arts Club of Chicago, the Ann Barzel Dance Research Collection, and the papers of Fanny Butcher, Jack Conroy, Floyd Dell, the Dill Pickle Club, Ben Hecht, Ruth Page, Eunice Tietjens, and Mark Turbyfill, among others.

In addition to working in the Newberry’s archives, the institute will spend time on several site visits throughout Chicago, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the South Side Community Art Center, Hull House, the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, a bus tour of Bronzeville led by Lee Bey, a walking tour of Towertown, and a studio visit to Vershawn Ward at Red Clay Dance Company.

Ruth Page photo
Dill Pickle Club flyer
Fanny Butcher greeting card