25 Year Anniversary of the Goethe-Institut Chicago - in October 2003
Hält uns immer frisch bei Mute.
(Remembrance of what is good
keeps us in high spirit.)
- Goethe -
|25 Jahre Goethe-Institut Chicago|
There is a part of anyone's history that is told simply by names and numbers: one's family name, one's age, the names of the places one has lived, and the endless stream of statistics by which we attempt to discern the shape of a person's life. Anyone who has filled out a job application or an insurance form is familiar with this kind of history. By this standard the story of Goethe-Institut's twenty-five years in Chicago can be told in terms of three buildings up and down Michigan Avenue, six directors -
Friedrich A. Schultz (picture not available), Wolfgang Ule, Walter Breuer, Hans-Georg Knopp, Manfred Heid and Rüdiger van den Boom - hundreds of language classes, and hundreds more cultural events, from readings to film series, art exhibits to concerts. But something gets lost in such listings: the dynamic generated and fostered by those directors in those buildings; the spirit of the Institut as it has unfolded over the years. The spirit of an organization can only be captured, if at all, by examining its changes and, in the case of a cultural organization, the changes of the local culture with which it interacts. For example, the Goethe-Institut Chicago was founded shortly after the death of the legendary Mayor Richard Joseph Daley and, five mayoralities later, a period which included the city's first woman mayor (Jane Byrne) and first black mayor (Harold Washington), the city is now under the nearly-as-legendary leadership of Daley's son, Richard Michael. As our French friends say, "Plus ca change... "
On October 1, 1978, the Institut moved into its first official quarters in the Equitable Building at 401 N. Michigan, and in January of 1979, the same month that an historic blizzard left the city under 30 inches of snow, the first language course was offered. (One can imagine that der Schnee was one of the first words the new students learned.) In April the library was opened. A little later, the first film program was presented - at a time when the foreign film scene in Chicago was still largely in its infancy. Words such as "unformed", "provisional" and even "funky" have been used to describe the work of the Institut in its first year, but Chicago as well could have easily fit this description. It was clearly a city in transition: Loop redevelopment was just beginning to kick in, the focus in the arts was shifting from major cultural institutions to a rapidly emerging alternative scene of performance spaces and galleries, and there was in general a vital, experimental energy that made this a particulary exciting time. The Institut was part of that excitement.
| 401 North Michigan Ave., |
where our offices were located until 1998
Expansion was, however, more than a local dynamic. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and the next year witnessed the reunification of Germany after forty-four years of division. While this was, of course, a cause for celebration, it also tokened a sea change for the Institut worldwide. Money - and focus - were now directed toward the former East, and the Goethe-Institut, like other federally funded organizations, began to experience financial cutbacks and restructuring. It was at this time that several Instituts in the United States were closed or had their services reduced, and that the Goethe-Institut Chicago moved to smaller quarters farther down Michigan Avenue to our present location in the Smurfit-Stone Building at 150 N. Michigan. This entailed a loss of exhibition and concert space, as well as a loss of visibility. Fortunately, however, it entailed no loss of ingenuity, nor of flexibilty. If anything, the new situation prompted the Institut to work in even closer collaboration with local partners, who were experiencing their own drastic cuts in cultural funding, a situation that persists to this day. But if the saying is true that misery loves company, reduced funding adores collaboration, and the result has been a focus that, while perhaps less grand than earlier days, is sharper, more attuned to the local scene, and more indicative of a shared vision. And, while exhibition space at the new location was decreased, classroom space was actually increased, and the language classes enjoyed an upswing in enrollment that would have been impossible in the old space. For that matter, while some cultural programming is now shared with community partners, the Institut still hosts a goodly number of well-attended readings, lectures, seminars and translation workshops each year. So if the change of address may have seemed like a setback at first, our audiences apparently haven't noticed.
So things have changed a lot in the past twenty-five years. "Language labs" were all the rage when language courses were first offered at the Institut; now students bring laptops to class. When the Institut first began showing films, Fassbinder was the Wunderkind of the German New Wave; now we're hosting evenings of experimental videos. In 1978, scientists at AT&T invented something called the "cell phone." It didn't really catch on. But some things remain the same. The students who attend the Institut's classes remain, according to their teachers, highly motivated and genuinely engaged. The audiences for our cultural events remain eager for a glimpse of a culture they continue to find fascinating. And the people who work at the Goethe-Institut Chicago remain committed to the belief that cultural understanding really does have the power to change the world.
(This article, written by Jeffrey Essmann, was based on interviews with Hartmut Karottki, Angela Greiner, Rita Grassl-Shefa, JoAnn Simonetta-Stob and Douglas Clonch, who have been connected with the Goethe-Institut Chicago, respectively, 23, 21, 9, 18 and 17 years. Many thanks to all of them for their kind cooperation.)