Artistic Agency and Cultural Production at Two South Side Art Centers




Art education is happening all over Chicago in a variety of forms. There are still traditional models like the painting class or ceramics workshop, but other course offerings have emerged that focus on issues outside of the classroom. Much like the contemporary art revolving around social practice and exhibition as form, discourse has become part of the creative process, resulting in outcomes that do not just yield objects but also, and sometimes exclusively, offer ideas that expand on and strengthen culture in the community.

There is a strong legacy of artistic practice on the South Side of Chicago.. Collectors like Patric McCoy and institutions like the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) preserve this legacy of predominantly African-American artists.

The SSCAC was founded in 1941 and announced to the nation in a dedication speech by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. It gained historic landmark status in 1994. This 77-year-old mission to create a space for African-American artists has been foundational to establishing Chicago’s South Side as a hub for art and culture.

It is thanks to this legacy that the South Side pioneered a foundation for other institutions to expand on institutional models and connect the South Side to the larger cultural and artistic discourse of the contemporary moment. One of the most influential figures in this process is Theaster Gates.

Gates established the Rebuild Foundation and the Arts Incubator at the University of Chicago, and he serves on the board at the Hyde Park Arts Center (HPAC). As one of the most influential contemporary artists today, Gates works across disciplines to address aesthetic, social, and cultural concerns about identity and society.

Thanks to the inclusion of contemporary art forms and ideas, this area has become a place where cutting-edge ideas and forms are being explored by students and professionals of all ages. Contemporary artists have not only come from the South Side but also are attracted to it by the opportunities it has to offer.

Nathan Worcester and I got to sit down with the educational directors at HPAC and the Arts Incubator to take a closer look at their histories and what makes their educational models unique and relevant in our contemporary cultural moment.

Evan Carter


Children of the Wall mural by Liz Lasdins, detail.



Hyde Park Art Center

HPAC occupies a unique niche in a neighborhood where art and ideas freely mix. Through all kinds of changes, HPAC has balanced its dedication to the local scene with its commitment to nurturing and exhibiting artists and arts educators who have often gone on to greater fame.

HPAC was created in 1939 by a group calling itself the Fifth Ward Art Guild. They did so with the support of future U.S. senator Paul Douglas, who had just been elected Fifth Ward alderman. From its earliest days, HPAC blended artistic production and education with community engagement, often in unconventional ways. In a 1976 booklet, History of the Hyde Park Art ­Center, Goldene Shaw noted that at one point, exhibitions chairman and “double image” painter Harold Haydon “literally papered the walls with children’s pictures collected from neighborhood elementary schools.”

HPAC reached new heights during the 1960s under the guidance of exhibitions director Don Baum. Beginning with the first HAIRY WHO exhibition in 1966, Baum’s HPAC helped launch the careers of Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Roger Brown, Christina Ramberg, Ed Paschke, and other anti-coastal originals. Lake Forest College art historian Franz Schulze dubbed them the Chicago Imagists. Unique forms of community engagement during this period included early screenings of “underground film” (scare quotes in Shaw) by Andy Warhol, Jean Genet and others.


Anna Kunz, Color Cast, image by Tom Van Eynde.


HPAC entered its current era in 2005 when it moved from the Del Prado Hotel to a new facility at 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Today, HPAC seeks to foster artistic development without shying away from social and political engagement.

“Whenever we’re putting together programs or exhibitions, we tend to ask ourselves how we’re serving the needs of people outside the building and how we’re having an impact on the world that we live in,” said Mike Nourse, Director of Education at HPAC.

 Describing the center’s sense of purpose, Nourse conjured up a vivid simile that he originally heard from a former colleague: “An art center is like a museum and a community center had a baby.”

“Because of our network and history working with so many artists, we can bridge that gap between people who have a track record as artists but want to take a step in their career with working professionals,” he added.

Nourse drew special attention to HPAC’s yearly Center Program, which enables 20 artists to develop new work in an environment in which process and underlying purpose are heavily scrutinized.

He credited the introduction of that program in 2011 with spurring many key changes at HPAC, including a renewed emphasis on coordination across departments. Notable alumnae include Amanda Williams, whose work was recently included in the U.S. pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Her Center project, which involved painting abandoned properties on the South Side of Chicago, touched off a broader conversation about color and value.

Nourse also touted HPAC’s ongoing “Fugitive Narratives” exhibition, which pairs abstract art with stories from the artists about their works. He considers it especially resonant in an era when more and more people are questioning and looking beyond the information they receive from the media, either directly or through the algorithms that determine the news they receive online.

 “It isn’t always just about making something. It’s about making a difference,” Nourse concluded.


Children of the Wall by Rahmaan Statik, detail.


Arts Incubator

The Arts Incubator occupies the corner shop at East Garfield Boulevard and South Prairie Avenue. Opened in 2013 under the vision and leadership of Theaster Gates and supported by the Arts + Public Life initiative at the University of Chicago, the Incubator is a cultural anchor for the Washington Park community.

It is housed in a classic storefront space adjoining its fellow establishments, BING bookstore and the Currency Exchange Café. Together, they make up the Arts Block, a hub in central Washington Park where people can not only enjoy books and coffee but also engage in some intellectual discourse around art and life.

Though this space serves as a home base, the Incubator incorporates the network of people from all over the Washington Park and Chicago area who are engaged with its activity.

I spoke to Education Programs Director Quenna Barrett and instructor Gabe Moreno about its educational programs. Three programs are designed for teens: the Design Apprenticeship Program (DAP), the Community Actors Program (CAP), and the Teen Arts Council. Each program is designed so that students may arrive at a place where they can be agents of change in the community. The programs are free and invite students with an interest to apply.


Design Apprenticeship Program, Arts + Public Life.

Photo by Gabe Moreno.


DAP fosters practical skills in design and concludes with students working on local projects like constructing furniture for a local business or fencing and planters for a public space in Washington Park. These projects are often carried out in conjunction with the offices of local aldermen or Chicago Park District, further strengthening students’ roles in the community. This is also a paid internship connecting students to professional life in tradecraft.

CAP is a theater-based program where students write and perform a play based on their own personal interests and stories. Drawing upon Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, the program creates a space where students generate an interactive theatrical production that addresses personal narratives and social change. Director Barrett took the lead in designing this program based her theater training. She paired this with her drive to expand on how theater represents people and their stories that typically don’t have access or representation in the medium.


Correct Opinions, opening reception at the Arts Incubator Gallery, Arts + Public Life, March, 2017. Photo by Jean Lachat.


The Teen Arts Council is a curatorial endeavor where students arrange and execute an art exhibition. In this process, they build an arts network and participate in the Festival in the Park program. This creates a space where students can engage in cultural discourse around art with their peers and generate a network of engaged community members.

According to Barrett, these programs are not only designed to aid students in skill development and community engagement but are also intended to give the instructors, all of whom are practicing artists, craftsmen, or organizing leaders, the ability to incorporate their ideas and practices into their educational model.

Ultimately, what makes the Incubator’s educational model unique is the degree to which students and teaching artists have agency--not only in generating knowledge in the classroom but in making a measurable impact on the community—through cultural production.


Evan Carter and Nathan Worcester


Evan Carter and Nathan Worcester are assistant editors at the New Art Examiner. Carter generated and oversaw feature content for this issue.



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