Just a few months ago, the large, vacant 55th Street storefront that formerly housed MAC Property offices seemed to repel passersby. Shoulders would hunch, eyes would roll, and with a quickened pace, students and community members would move along without turning to look inside. But on November 27, everyone stopped and looked.
Last Friday night marked the opening of the Opportunity Shop, a temporary creative space where artists and audiences can engage with one another. The space is filled with artists’ work, areas for collaborative projects, and even thrift sales. As a steady stream of people moved in and out of the newly activated space, D.J. and Hyde Park dad Curtis Myers spun music from his personal collection. The sounds of conversations, video installations, and live performances spilled onto the otherwise quiet street. Inside, the crowd ranged from 5-year-olds captivated by erasable markers and an overhead projector, to loquacious activists for artists’ rights, to elderly couples reclining in cushioned chairs surveying the scene. It was Hyde Park at its best.
“The Op Shop is a community-based environment that creates opportunities for all those involved in the arts to engage one another,” says Amanda Englert, who along with Laura Shaeffer and the United Church of Hyde Park helped bring the Op Shop to life. In a space where a church thrift store brushes shoulders with School of the Art Institute of Chicago student films and photographs taken by a University of Chicago sociology PhD student, the community’s hunger for such an opportunity is clear.
“This is a true experiment in democracy,” explains Englert. “The shop is about the community response. It is a site for all different kinds of collaboration.” When MAC approached Shaeffer about occupying the space until January, Shaeffer, who runs the Home Gallery out of her two-story Hyde Park house, turned to her address book. Englert was one of the first people she called. Between their respective connections, they gathered a large number of interested artists. And the variety of artists is inspiring.
The Op Shop is designed something like an outdoor art market. Former individual offices have been carved into gallery spaces where the works of nearly forty artists are displayed. On Friday, many of the artists sat among their work engaging the passing throngs. “This project is unusual because here, artists hang their own work, price their own work, themselves, and handle all purchasing negotiations,” explains Englert. But sale profits are just one element shaping the shop’s dynamic.
On the Saturday afternoon following the Op Shop’s opening, Englert sits at the center table with her arms placed atop a lockbox. She details the curatorial duties to a volunteer who will take over her post for the next few hours. “This is an entirely volunteer operation,” says Englert. “And the number of volunteers has been great.” Englert is interrupted by a young couple who have stumbled upon the shop. They are artists interested in showing work. “See what I mean?” Englert smiles, “This space has such a special dynamic.” More than simply housing art, the Op Shop itself is a kind of a conversational, durational art piece. Over the next thirty days, Shaeffer and Engler hope to facilitate a site for exhibits, exchange, workshops, auctions, and performances. They will not serve as curators, but will instead allow the community to shape the project.
At the end of the month, the Op Shop will close, and MAC Property will turn the space over to a new business. Although both Shaeffer and Englert will be sad to leave, their goal is to continue to bring the Op Shop to unused spaces throughout the South Side. Ideally, the Op Shop will continue to grow and change and become a site of exchange throughout the South Side. Says Englert, “It will be sad to leave, but it’s also part of the Op Shop’s nature.”
Opportunity Shop, 1613 E. 55th St. Through December 31. Thursday-Sunday, 11am-7pm. theopshop.org