Jane Addams and the Tradition of Community Arts Practice in Chicago

Richard Siegesmund  |  Richard Siegesmund is a Professor of Art and Design Education in the School of Art at Northern Illinois University and a Fulbright Scholar at National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Ireland.

Chicago’s leading cultural institutions stand near the shore of Lake Michigan, at the civic hub, on landfill from the aftermath of the devastating fire of 1871 that virtually erased the core of the older city.  They are part of the new city—the second city—that arose. Moving further away from this nexus, the character of Chicago emerges: neighborhoods shaped by immigration. These neighborhoods have fostered Chicago’s history of community art practice: a history that arguably begins at the turn of the 20th century with Jane Addams’ efforts at Hull House.

The great waves of immigration that enveloped the United States at the end of the 19th century precipitated Addams’ work, as they simultaneously fueled the city’s economic and civic rebirth following the great fire. At first, the immigrants were largely Irish and Germans, but Scandinavians as well as an array of Southern and Central Europeans soon followed. By the end of the decade, the population of Chicago had increased 600% to just under two millions people. Continuing into the 20th century, African Americans seeking to escape apartheid in the South etched new entryways. Central and South Americans followed. The 20th century also saw the end of Federal xenophobic immigration laws and opened Chicago to Asians.

These mass surges of immigration resulted in dense ethnically similar local neighborhoods with a strong identification to a common cultural ancestry. The tightly knit, generally hideously impoverished communities were further reinforced by Chicago’s political system that both perpetuated and disenfranchised them at the same time.  The hermetic isolation of these communities provided cheap and easily exploited industrial labor to fuel Chicago’s new capitalism. Ruling elites could maintain economic and political power without having to provide any civic services to their constituents (Addams, 1902/2002).

In this historical moment in the late 19th Century, and in response to the growing disparity in wealth between economic classes, the social reform movement of Christian Socialism maintained that those with economic, social, and educational privilege should help those less fortunate.  Oftentimes, Christian Socialism framed assistance as helping the dispossessed to align their behaviors with British Protestantism. As such, this was classic deficit theory: the poor were destitute empty vessels; improvement would come if people would mimetically follow the customs and behaviors of the elite. This conception of benevolence brought about at this historical moment in the United States the public art museum: a civic institution where the ruling elites would put forward cultural exemplars for the benefit of the socially deprived.1

In Chicago, Jane Addams set a different course. Her efforts at Hull House on Halsted Street, from 1889 until her death in 1935, projected a vision of community arts involvement that animates Chicago to the present day.

Addams came from social privilege and was raised within the context of Christian Socialism. She was inspired by the British Settlement Movement that sought to integrate people of a full range of social classes in a common residential setting. To see the theory in practice, she visited the Settlement exemplar, Toynbee Hall in London. As a direct response, she developed Hull House, located in the new cacophonous immigrant communities on the expanding southern side of the city:

“Between Halsted Street and the river live about ten thousand Italians—Neapolitans, Sicilians, and Calabrians, with an occasional Lombard or Venetian. To the south on Twelfth Street are many Germans, and side streets are given over almost entirely to Polish and Russian Jews. Still farther south, these Jewish colonies merge into a huge Bohemian colony, so vast that Chicago ranks as the third Bohemian city in the world. To the northwest are many Canadian-French, clannish in spite of their long residence in America, and to the north are Irish and first-generation Americans. On the streets directly west and farther north are well-to-do English-speaking families. . . .”  (Addams; 1910, p. 98)

Like Toynbee Hall, Addams desired Hull House to be a place where beliefs and social issues were discussed in a residential environment. Addams did not presume that only those with education possessed the wisdom to pass down to the uneducated and illiterate. She assumed that all people were thoughtfully engaged in the world around them and had insights to share. She did not come to teach. She did not arrogantly assume that her cultural background provided her with a privileged insight into how to improve the lives of others. Furthermore, and perhaps most critically, she did not believe that the immigrant communities of the new Chicago were abject. In her mind, these were good people. They had dignity, aspirations, and ideas. She viewed her neighbors as possessing knowledge from which she and others could learn and grow. She listened. While Addams certainly saw herself as contributing skills and abilities that would enrich conversations, she strode into the community engaging those around her as equals.

In its operations, Hull House would be open to all. People from all walks of life and economic and social position would treat each other as peers. Ultimately, this proved to earn Addams the distrust of many, as she did not take sides. She was not preserving the social elite, but neither was she advocating radical Socialist action as a solution. She did not fit the tough hardball politics of Chicago, as the city grew into a model 20th century industrial city in an endless struggle between capital and labor. She refused to align with any label.  Instead, she championed dialogue in the hope that in our listening we might learn and that in our courage to speak was the possibility that we might be heard.

Addams blended the British Settlement system with American Pragmatism. At its heart, social American Pragmatism is a visceral philosophy of testing ideas in practice. It is profoundly American in that it recognizes the fundamental worth of the individual. Genealogy, economic social class, or educational training does not predetermine an individual’s social and cultural contributions. Action measures individual achievement, not external “valid” and “reliable” tests into one’s dexterity with words and numbers. In fact, if our ability to manipulate words and numbers becomes the sole standard for assessing intelligence, then these symbolic tools occlude us from multiple forms of wisdom. Hull House was an experiment in attempting to break these sutures open, so that we could see more, see anew, and see to the purpose of leading more engaged lives with all of those around us. In this way Hull House was a Pragmatic laboratory in democracy.

From the outset of Hull House, Addams—with the support of her colleague and companion Ellen Gates Starr—included adult engagement with the fine and technical arts. Addams maintained the centrality of the arts to her endeavors.  She believed that the arts were not a set of skills to be acquired through training, but a set of experiences that opened the imagination to our relationship with the world. Such experiences led to the realization of the need for ethical social bonds with others. For Addams, aesthetics (her approach to art) was not a disinterested realm of social refinement and a distanced gaze. Instead, aesthetics was visceral and relational. Aesthetics was a means of how we came to confront, as Michel Foucault (1988) would later phrase it, the care of self. Through this aesthetic care of self, one encountered the care of others, and the care of community.

This legacy has reverberated through Chicago and remains vital to aesthetic civic discourse. Community arts centers that followed in the wake of Hull House include the Evanston Art Center and the Hyde Park Art Center, both still in operation. For a decade beginning in the early 1970s, Addams’ grandniece, Jane Addams Allen, co-founded and co-directed the New Art Examiner, a publication that sought to decentralize control of the dialogue around art practice in Chicago, and in the spirit of Hull House, create an open forum of exchange. Contemporary sites of community art practice include the Stockyard Institute and the South Side’s Arts Incubator.

American Pragmatism teaches to the future, to what might be, but has not yet coalesced. At their best, community arts programs foster emergent, unnoticed, or neglected creativity. By so doing, such arts programs can be sites of individual and collective becoming. Such transformations begin through inscribed visual, auditory, and somatic meanings that words may not fully convey; however, to attempt to understand these visual acts of mind through language can expand our perception (Dewey, 1934). If we are to fully realize the possibility of open democratic dialogue through community arts, we must make a co-commitment to both non-linguistic and linguistic communication. Thus, this newspaper is more than a document of record; it is a document of mind. It is an act of politics. It is document that seeks to sustain and invigorate the wisdom within community arts and the contribution they make to democratic society.


1 Not until the 1960s would art historians fully wrest control of art museums from the hands of the Christian Socialists. This only changed the message modeled to the culturally disposed. It did not question the art museum’s founding pedagogical principle of deficit theory education.


Addams, J. (2002). Democracy and Social Ethics. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. Original date of publication 1902.

Addams, J. (1910) Twenty Years at Hull-House with Autobiographical Notes. New York, NY: MacMillan. full text: http://www.digital.library.upenn.edu/women/addams/hullhouse/hullhouse.html#65

Dewey, J. (1934). Art as Experience. New York, NY: Minton, Balch.

Foucault, M. (1988). The history of sexuality: Volume 3, the care of the self (R. Hurley, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage.