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Chicago Arts Meeting

On May 11, 2016, Jonathan Fanton welcomed Chicago-area members gathered at The Chicago Club to discuss the potential formation of a commission on the role of the arts in America.

Thank you all for joining us this morning. Let me begin by thanking Pat Ryan for bringing us together for this conversation about the role of the arts and a possible American Academy commission on this important topic. Let me also thank Pat and his wife Shirley for their longstanding contributions to the arts over many years — from serving on boards to founding programs and sponsoring the construction of new buildings. Their support of the arts is impressive and inspiring.

The American Academy has approximately 6,000 members, of whom almost 300 hail from the greater Chicago area. Naturally, whenever we are exploring a major new initiative, we like to present ideas to our friends in Chicago.

As one of the nation’s oldest honorary societies and independent research centers, the Academy was founded in 1780 by John Adams, John Hancock, and other scholar-patriots to “cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity and happiness of a free, independent and virtuous people.” Though our areas of focus have changed over the past 235 years, the tradition of providing useful knowledge to the nation continues.

We pursue our mission in three formats:

  • Exploratory meetings, in which members come together for a conversation about topics of interest to them. For example, John Levi, chair of the Legal Services Corporation, is leading an important inquiry into the status of legal services for low-income Americans. Another group is focusing on the future of jazz, which they fear is losing ground. Still another led by Jim Cuno, president and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, is considering the creation of a new norm to protect cultural heritage—think Palmyra.
  • A second format is projects leading to an issue of our journal Dædalus. Upcoming issues of Daedalus will feature experts in the field of international security. Topics will include ethical dilemmas posed by new technology in war; the implications of failing states and civil wars to international security; and crafting a framework for a new nuclear age.
  • The third mode of Academy activity is a commission of Academy members to examine an important topic.

For example, the Academy sponsored a Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences, to advance the national dialogue on the importance of the humanities and social sciences to the future of our nation and how we live our lives. The Commission’s work culminated in a report, which we have provided, titled The Heart of the Matter, which reminded students, parents, teachers, researchers and the interested public that their personal and professional lives, as well as the intellectual life of the nation, are deepened and strengthened by their interactions with the humanities and social sciences. It also offered concrete recommendations for sustaining and expanding humanities scholarship and activity at every level of American society.

It resulted in several important initiatives: a bill in Congress that called for the expansion of President Obama’s STEM Master Teacher program to include the humanities; a new initiative of the National Humanities Alliance called Working Groups for Community Impact, which aims to foster collaboration between local humanities organizations; and a variety of activities in communities across the nation, including new conversations about the importance of the humanities, new fundraising initiatives, and new engagement with local businesses and media.

Here in Chicago, the Humanities Commission partnered with the Chicago Humanities Festival and the Modern Languages Association to convene the Chicago Humanities Summit. This summit brought together the leadership of over 200 humanities organizations to discuss how to implement findings in the Heart of the Matter.

The Heart of the Matter continues to shape the conversation about the growing role and persistent need of the humanities in society. However, the Commission concluded that the role of the arts in America was such an important and challenging topic that it warranted a separate Academy exploration.

You may find it interesting to know that the Academy’s membership includes at least 270 people in the arts and many others who serve on boards of arts institutions and give generously to the arts. Some of our earlier members in the arts were painters Jonathan Trumbull and Benjamin West, and musician William Herschel while more recent members include singer and actress Audra McDonald and poet Mary Oliver. Amongst the many Chicago-based artists within the American Academy include composer and conductor Ralph Shapey and the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Current Chicago members in the arts with whom you may be familiar include composer Augusta Read Thomas, installation artist Theaster Gates and former President of the Art Institute of Chicago Douglas Druick.

What we are here to discuss this morning is very much in line with the Academy’s involvement with the arts. In the last 50 years, Dædalus, the Journal of the Academy, has published a wide range of volumes on American arts, music, museums and film, in addition to the humanities more broadly. Some examples include: Creativity and Learning (1965), The Moving Image (1985), The Future of Opera (1986), and On Art and Science (1986). More recent publications include Reflecting on the Humanities (2009) and On American Music (2013).

I also wanted to mention that Chicago has been the site of several of the Academy’s stated meetings focused on the arts. About a decade ago, we held a meeting on “War and Peace in the Operas of Giuseppe Verdi.” More recently, the Chicago Humanities Festival and the American Academy co-hosted a meeting on The Common Good, which included the common goods and shared experiences created by a thriving arts community.

This is the third of several conversations the Academy will have this year to evaluate the recommendation that we convene a commission to look at the state of the arts in America.

At this point, Dr. Fanton asked members convened for their counsel and suggestions regarding a potential American Academy commission focused on the arts in the United States.

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