ARLINGTON, Mass. — This year marks a milestone in the history of the Armenian Cultural Foundation (ACF). Seventy-five years ago this November, “an unknown and modest resident of Boston,” one Vahan Topalian from Dikranakert (Diyarbekir), Western Armenia, made an invaluable gift to the Armenian community of Boston and the city of Boston in general. Hailed as “a shrine for culture,” the Armenian Cultural Foundation opened its doors to the public and laid the foundations of a proud legacy. A singular entity in its scope and depth, the ACF for three-quarters of a century has preserved and promoted the Armenian cultural heritage in North America.
The official dedication of ACF took place on November 6, 1947, at 18 Somerset Street, the original site of the library. With the presence of a capacity crowd of book enthusiasts in an audience representing all segments of the Armenian community, including numerous guests from outside of Boston, Topalian (1886-1983), a bibliophile a common man and a tailor by profession, prefaced his remarks with the statement that “no immediate menace threatened the physical survival of the Armenian people, but a definite danger existed to Armenian cultural values”—a fact that unfortunately remains true to this day.
Topalian continued by striking a very proud and independent note that “no one shall be able to become a charter member of this institution by monetary gifts…no financial gifts or contributions by Armenian organizations will be accepted…We shall feel ourselves amply rewarded if lovers of Armenian books avail themselves of these facilities from a sincere motive of preservation and extension of Armenian spiritual values.”
The ACF library, named after Armenian poet, writer, philosopher, lexicographer and mystic Eghia Demirjibashian (1858-1908), whom Topalian adored, is the result of Topalian’s 40 years of “tender, compassionate and fastidious labor, searching, purchasing and collecting” rare specimens of world literature and rare, inaccessible Armenian originals or periodical literature dating back to as early as 1860. Today, three quarters of a century later, the library collection has grown from 25,000 to about 45,000 items and includes rare Armenian periodicals.
New Headquarters, New Period
With the takeover in 1961 of the Foundation under eminent domain of the City of Boston, the ACF—with the generous help of a fellow Armenian immigrant, entrepreneur, businessman and philanthropist John Mirak (1893-2000)—moved to its present location by enchanting Mystic Lake in Arlington. The care of the ACF’s valuable collection was trusted to curator Hagop Atamian (1915-2002) beginning in the 1960s. He continued to serve with utmost dedication even after Topalian’s passing in 1983, under the supervision of the five-member Board of Trustees. A man of letters himself, during his long tenure and with the support of the Mirak family, Atamian—for close to four decades—maintained and cataloged the library’s collection with meticulous detail, making it accessible to the public.
1997 marked the beginning of a new period in ACF’s history. John Mirak retired from the Foundation at the age of 90, turning the reins to his son, Dr. Robert Mirak, and a new Board, which with a new curator, Dr. Ara Ghazarians, charted a new course in the life of the institution. Whereas John Mirak and Vahan Topalian kept the Cultural Foundation under wraps, pleading for more time to “renovate this or repair that,” but in fact avoiding a public face and fearful perhaps of too much publicity, the new Board, while adhering to the mission of “promoting culture in general and Armenian culture in particular,” broadened its goals: first, to encourage and be a center for the study of Armenian music, especially in the Armenian Diaspora, and second, to encourage and be a center for the history of Armenian women in Armenia and abroad.
In the former direction, the Foundation established the Komitas Vardapet Room for the collection of Armenian music. Compositions, recordings, correspondence and memorabilia of the outstanding Persian-Armenian-American composer and conductor Reuben Gregorian (1915-1991), world renowned composer and son of Arlington Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), conductor Arsen S. Sayan (1925-2018), composers Hayg Boyadjian (1938 – ), Koharik Ghazarosian (1907-1967), and Diane Goolkasian Rahbee (1938 – ) fill this room. In 2017 the Foundation launched the Mirak Chamber Music Series in memory of John Mirak, the sole benefactor for decades and late president of the ACF, to showcase the world’s finest classical music, the works of Armenian composers, “with an emphasis on introducing works by Armenian women composers in Armenia and Diaspora.”
With respect to Armenian women’s issues, the Foundation is closely affiliated with the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA) and houses AIWA’s archives in the Alice Kanlian Mirak (1940-2000) Memorial Room.
The Collection and Accomplishments
The Foundation has a collection unique not just in North America, but in the Western hemisphere, specializing in Armenian-language works, both modern and classical. However, the ACF is also an international library, holding large numbers of volumes in English and French as well as in German, Italian, Russian, Farsi, Greek and Turkish. Many are priceless first editions containing original letters and signatures of their authors. The library’s holdings in the past decade have expanded to 45-thousand items. Concerned with the age and condition of its rare Armenian periodicals collection, the Foundation launched a major Armenian Periodicals Microfilming Project in 2002. With over 145 old-world Armenian periodical titles dating back to 1860, the Foundation has microfilmed over 45 major titles in 53 volumes amounting to 204 reels.
The original scholarly, cultural and literary endeavors of the Foundation have not been neglected, however. Over 150 events, i.e. hosting delegations from Armenia, book signings, lectures, musical events, exhibitions, literary and cultural events and symposia, have been frequently organized, including the 1700th anniversary of the proclamation of Christianity as the state religion in Armenia (2001), an important exhibit on the life and career of Armenia’s first woman diplomat (to Japan) Diana A. Apcar (1859-1937) organized in 2004, and the dedication of a monument in Arlington to world-renowned composer Alan Hovhaness in 2009.
The Foundation has also been active in promoting publications and musical CDs. Since the release in 2000 of its catalogue of Armenian Periodicals and Reference Materials (in Armenian), the Foundation has translated and published over ten titles, among them the important eyewitness account of the Genocide of 1915, Armenia 1915 (2006) by Heinrich Vierbücher; two titles by prolific Diaspora Armenian writer Hakob Karapents, The Widening Circle and other Early Short Stories (2007) and Mtorumner [Ruminations] (in Armenian) in 2009; In the Land of Blood and Tears (2007) by Swiss missionary Jakob Künzler; President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug (2013) by Dr. H. Martin Deranian; The Astrologer of Karabagh by Platon P. Zubov, (2012), and Collections of the of the Armenian Cultural Foundation: Letters and Autographs (2007).
In 1999, the Foundation initiated the Foundation Papers, a periodical publication, dedicated to documenting select major events and sharing their proceeding with the public. Furthermore, the Foundation has also produced and co-sponsored the production of three music CDs and a number of booklets and pamphlets.
In the spirit of cooperation between Diaspora Armenian institutions with their counterparts in Armenia, as well as in the United States both nationally and locally, ACF has participated in two International Conferences of Armenian Libraries, under the auspices of the Holy See of Etchmiadzin and the National Library of Armenian (NLA). Over the past decade, the Foundation has helped enrich and expand resources and collections in the NLA as well as Shushi’s Central Public library and other major academic and research institutions in both Armenia and in the United States.
To make its collections more readily available to the community, ACF is preparing a refurbished and expanded website, scheduled for launch in January 2021. With the passage of years, the preservation of the Armenian cultural heritage is becoming ever more important. Today, after three-quarters of century, ACF, with the ongoing support of the Mirak family, continues to thrive as one of the cultural jewels of the Armenian Diaspora.