(Art) Talks of the Town: Never the Same’s Chicago Archive

Alexandra Kadlec

In October of 2011 Never the Same, an online and material project focused on Chicago’s art history, was launched. Organizers Daniel Tucker and Rebecca Zorach envisioned the project to be an archive and catalogue of 100 socially and politically engaged art works and events produced in the city over the last 40 years.

With a firm belief that “Chicago has a very rich local art history that we spend very little energy as a community of participants in actually preserving,” Daniel, an artist, and Rebecca, a professor of Art History at the University of Chicago, hope “that NTS can contribute to filling some of those gaps.”

Since receiving a 2010 Propeller Fund grant, how has Never the Same taken shape to date? The technical, conversational, and experiential components of this continually evolving project provide multi-faceted answers to such a question. They illustrate that Never the Same’s process has been more exploratory than methodical; as such, its progress more compelling than predictable.

The overarching mission of NTS is to develop a new language for describing and discussing social and political art practices. This objective stemmed from personal observations that current language being used in the field and in discourse was limited; too often, it focused on the artist at the expense of his or her work, subject matter at the expense of aesthetics, documentation at the expense of experience, and organizational process at the expense of politics.

How have the project’s organizers approached such a broad objective thus far?

Before action came thoughtful, collaborative exploration. In November of 2010 NTS, along with Stephanie Smith, Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Smart Museum of Art, inaugurated the project with an event held at Chicago’s Experimental Station. About 60 artists and organizers from across the city participated in a show and tell of materials from both their own collections and others’ historic Chicago art projects. A round table discussion concerning the politics and challenges of archiving a living history was then held.

Of next importance was deciding upon the subject matter to document and catalogue, and the artists to interview. Both were largely subjective choices made by Daniel and Rebecca, as they sought to “simultaneously satisfy [their] own curiosities and also responsibly fill in gaps in local art history.” These choices, however, have been largely informed by discussions with Abigail Satinsky, Theaster Gates, Mary Patten, and Ryan Lugalia-Hollon.

The first round of interviews ended up totaling 15—five more than originally planned. Some were people Daniel and Rebecca thought had been overlooked or misrepresented in some way; for example, Mary Jane Jacob, whose public program “Culture in Action” had few reliable online resources dealing with what actually happened. Others heard about the project and reached out to NTS because they felt their history would be complimentary to someone else that had already been interviewed.

For Daniel, the most exciting, gratifying moments throughout Never the Same’s short history have occurred during memorable conversations wherein artists shared transformative experiences that have been part of their work; Jorge Felix’s story about a conversation he had while installing the traveling exhibition, “Not Enough Space”; Emily Forman and Josh MacPhee’s discussion of how the Department of Space and Land Reclamation continues to be a touchstone for their practices; the organizers of Ladyfest Midwest’s description of the temporary family formed while coordinating a large-scale women-centered arts festival. Such details, ones that did not exist in previously available documentation, serve to enrich and enliven Chicago’s art history.

It’s these snapshots of life, what Daniel calls “the very interpersonal and social dimensions that motivate us to do this work in the first place,” that have reaffirmed the structural and formatting choices behind NTS. The project’s conversational component has not only allowed for a deeper reflective look at the art history of Chicago, but a unique investigation into its current arts scene as well. As such, Never the Same has not been simply about looking back, but also about looking around, continuing to unearth a rich local culture in the process.

Beyond connections forged during interviews, discussions, and introductions, Daniel and Rebecca have been able to cultivate meaningful ties to the community in other ways as well, namely, by supporting local businesses. Materials for NTS’s physical archive were purchased from Half Letter Press and Quimby’s—companies that regularly invest their resources to support local printed culture.

Funds from the 2010 Propeller grant have been utilized for this purpose and in a number of other ways: for video and audio recording equipment to back up interviews, travel expenses to conduct interviews, and most importantly, to transcribe and edit the 15 interviews already conducted. The importance of transcribed interviews is that the text becomes keywords online; those who might have heard about groups and individuals involved in the project are then easily directed to the NTS website.

The intent of Never the Same has always been to include local histories in a way that the Chicago community feels connected to and also feels good about; in other words, dig in and get to know better the city and its people, rather than research a handful of key events from the outside—an approach lacking essential context and grounding.

Looking forward, how might Never the Same extend beyond the scope of its current online and material archive while maintaining integrity to its mission?

One long-term concept is to turn the interviews and documents into a book for libraries and other archives to house. The physical collection, which includes exhibition and event catalogues, postcards, CDS and DVDs, posters, and other materials, is currently kept at a studio space in Logan Square. A book, or series of books, would preserve but also increase access to the project.

Like the creative process itself, how the reach and scope of Never the Same will evolve and unfold remains to be seen.


NTS also received funding from: the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry at the University of Chicago. Learn more about Daniel Tucker and Rebecca Zorach’s involvement in other local arts-related ventures here.

All photos: Archiving Chicago Art discussion organized with Stephanie Smith at Experimental Station, November, 2010 – Courtesy of Jerome Grand