Room to Grow

Jane Fentress

“How can we help expand a community for woman artists and artists of color throughout the city and South Side?”

Theaster Gates, Director of Arts and Public Life at the University of Chicago, has asked himself this question for years. A nationally recognized artist who is trained in urban planning, Gates is known for taking a leading role in community development programs on the South Side. One such development, the Dorchester Project in Grand Crossing, is a house that Gates transformed into a performance space and multimedia library. But one project is not enough to serve an entire city and satisfy what Gates calls his “grand ambition” of “seeing the arts flourish on the South Side.” As a result, Gates is spearheading a new UofC Arts and Public Life initiative aimed at strengthening the connection between the arts communities on and off campus.

The cornerstone of this $1.85 million University-funded initiative will be an “arts incubator” in Washington Park. The space, a nearly century-old two-story terra cotta building and former liquor store on Garfield Boulevard, is currently being transformed into a space for South Side artists to gather and work. The initiative will fund three one-year artist fellowships and residencies in order to create an environment of collaboration that Gates feels is key to the creative process. “The value of having multiple artists sharing one space is that they can be colleagues and engage each other in the why of their practices,” he says. In addition to studios, the incubator will also host performance and exhibition space. And Gates plans to reach out to neighborhood schools through a K-12 after school arts program that will collaborate with existing UofC student organizations engaged in teaching art across the South Side.

The incubator is set to open in late 2012. Gates has worked closely with Bill Michel, the executive director of the UofC’s Reva and David Logan Center for Creative and Performing Arts. The two have been collaborating with existing arts education programs in the area since the beginning of the last school year. They see the new incubator as a response to a pressing need: “There is no lack of culture on the South Side. There is no lack of creative people on the South Side. The thing we lack is spaces where people can convene, rehearse, we lack venues for arts engagement. When venues are identified, the cultural wealth of the neighbors makes itself present.”

But Gates doesn’t think the work he and his colleagues are doing stops at the promotion of culture. “When culture lives in a place and when space is made for cultural life, other things grow in this kind of ecological system. How do we make space for artists so that the creative community around them has a place where they can share culture?” he asks. With the new Logan Center opening in 2012 and the Washington Park incubator to open soon after, it seems as though the South Side art scene will have lots of new room to grow.