Graham School News

Know Your Chicago Launches 2019 Season with Riveting Symposium

Philip Baker
The University of Chicago Hyde Park campus

Kicking off its 71st season with the University of Chicago Graham School, Know Your Chicago held its annual Symposium on September 4 at Ida Noyes Hall, where distinguished speakers had the chance to address central issues at the heart of the season’s upcoming Tours

Founded in 1948 by Mary Ward Wolkonsky, Know Your Chicago strives to encourage civic participation by investigating the diverse forces and institutions shaping the City of Chicago and the world beyond. The annual Symposium contextualizes the upcoming season, while each Tour offers an experiential insight into one such topic area. 

“Our program has a shared belief that by sending issues to an audience we can build an informed citizenry,” said Penny Obenshain, Know Your Chicago chair. “The scope of the subjects that we undertake, and the skill with which the committee crafts our tours, provide the opportunities for you to have a close look at the challenges and rewards faced by our neighborhoods and city.”

Breakfast is served at the Know Your Chicago Symposium on September 4 at Ida Noyes Hall.
Breakfast is served at the Know Your Chicago Symposium on September 4 at Ida Noyes Hall.

First among the day’s Symposium speakers was Bonnie McDonald, president and CEO of Landmark Illinois, a statewide nonprofit organization focused on preserving and promoting the architectural resources of Illinois. In her talk, McDonald outlined Landmark Illinois’s history, starting with its beginnings in the fight to save the Chicago Stock Exchange Building and moving through the variety of ways it continues to provide expertise and funding to individuals and communities across Illinois.

“Today we very much think that solving a city’s ills involves demolishing those properties that we consider to be problems and replacing them with something new,” McDonald said, echoing the twentieth century urbanist and author Jane Jacobs. “But we can’t build our way out of our city’s issues. We need to work together as human beings and as keen observers of the life in our communities. I’m going to ask you all today to be keen observes of your communities while using the knowledge we gain from thinking about what Chicago has done to transform its legendary structures.”

“Our program has a shared belief that by sending issues to an audience we can build an informed citizenry.” —Penny Obenshein, Know Your Chicago Chair

Next up were Peter Ascoli and Stephanie Deutsch, who discussed the extraordinary impact on Chicago of Julius Rosenwald, the often-overlooked civic titan who helmed Sears, Roebuck and Company while making a substantial philanthropic impact across the country. As a biographer of Rosenwald as well as grandson, Ascoli, a past director of development for the Steppenwolf Theater Company, focused on the integrity of Rosenwald as well as the business acumen he demonstrated in making Sears the “. . . largest retail establishment not only in the United States, but in the entire world. It was the Amazon dot com of its day.”

“He touched so many avenues of Chicago life,” Ascoli added. “For instance, the Museum of Science and Industry is really his brainchild. Perhaps the only tragedy of his life was that he did not live to see its opening in 1933.”

Concentrating on Rosenwald’s collaboration with Booker T. Washington and the development of the Rosenwald Fund, Deutsch, a journalist and author of Julius Rosenwald: The Man Who Built Sears, Roebuck and Advanced the Cause of Black Education in the American South, highlighted his philanthropic support for the education of African American children in the rural South.

“In 1911, Rosenwald met Washington in Chicago and they liked each other,” Deutsch said. “I think they recognized something that was similar in each other: they were both very pragmatic and less interested in sitting around and talking about ideas than talking about the most pressing needs of the world.” Individuals interested in learning more about Rosenwald are invited to attend a screening of the biographic film Rosenwald followed by a discussion with Peter Ascoli and the film’s director Aviva Kempner on September 25 at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts (Learn more and register for the Rosenwald screening and discussion).

“The role of a great museum, whether it’s civic or university or public, is to steward a collection that helps us understand the history of the world we live in today through the lens of artistic practice.” —Alison Gass, Dana Feitler Director of the Smart Museum of Art

Alison Gass, Dana Feitler Director of the Smart Museum of Art, took to the stage next to offer her insight into the world of art collecting and centered her comments around what she called the extraordinary symbiosis between collectors and museums. She noted how museums rely on the great philanthropy of thoughtful and informed collectors, while, at the same time, it is by partnering with museum curators, who spend their time researching, traveling, and seeing art, that collectors are able to develop their artistic judgment and grow as appreciators of the art they ultimately buy.

“The two together can really forge a new path for the future and for the story of art history,” she said. “The role of a great museum, whether it’s civic or university or public, is to steward a collection that helps us understand the history of the world we live in today through the lens of artistic practice.”

Following a break for lunch, Chris Jones, longtime chief critic and culture columnist for the Chicago Tribune and winner of the prestigious George Jean Nathan Award for drama criticism, delivered a vivid overview of Chicago’s theater scene along with its literary culture more generally. Calling himself an “old-fashioned, old-world arts critic,” he emphasized that his task as a critic is to share with his readers a drama production’s points of interest and importance, as well as its potential for being enjoyed.

Know Your Chicago Chair and Committee members
Know Your Chicago Chair and Committee members at the annual Symposium.

“We critics are always being declared to be defunct,” he said. “We’re anomalies now in a world where everyone’s an expert. I’ve always tried to make the argument that there is something in a professional critic who does this for a living and who gets themselves out of the way a little bit. Most of the shows I go to are not great, but they’re not terrible either, and I think it’s important for a critic to be able to identify the significance and meaning of even okay plays.”

Concluding the day was John Russick, vice president of the Chicago History Museum, whose remarks gave Know Your Chicago participants a sense for the behind-the-scenes decision-making that goes into exhibition design in Chicago’s top museums. With a tripartite focus on (1) the objects that comprise an exhibit, (2) the story that ties them together, and (3) the specific type of interactive experience the exhibit creates with its audience, Russick used noteworthy examples from both his professional life and museum-visiting experience to highlight the curatorial strategies that lead to impactful and entertaining exhibits.

“Exhibit design involves communicating something complex that taps into what the audience knows, thinks, and wants, but without doing that like an instructor or teacher,” he said. “That gets a little old, we’re familiar with that and can get that experience elsewhere. A museum should be something different.” 

As the 2019 Know Your Chicago Symposium came to a close, those present were already taking what they had learned during the day’s presentations and using it to bolster their expectations for the Tours ahead. Spread out over September and October, the six Tours will lead participants across Chicago while upholding the distinguished legacy put in place 71 years ago by Mary Ward Wolkonsky, whose founding vision sought to instill in Chicago’s citizens a curiosity to learn more about their city that might, at the same time, translate into an ambition to participate in its bettering.


Know Your Chicago is an annual autumn lecture and tour series designed to promote civic awareness and participation. The series begins with a daylong Symposium featuring speakers addressing the underlying issues related to that year’s tours. Learn more and view upcoming Know Your Chicago Tours ›