The South Side Community Art Center is an African American community art center and museum in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. It was established in 1940 with funding from the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, a Depression-era program aimed at providing employment to artists. Of the more than one hundred community art centers created by the program, South Side remains the only one still in operation in its original building. Today the community art center, supported by donations, offers a variety of art classes, and provides a platform for local African Americans to exhibit their artwork. It has been designated both a Chicago Landmark and a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is a member of the Chicago Cultural Alliance.
1935 the Franklin Roosevelt administration established the Federal Art Project
as part of the Works Progress Administration. Its purpose was to alleviate the
plight of unemployed artists in the midst of the Great Depression, and to bring
culture and public art to new areas. Many artists were employed under the
project to create public murals, sculptures, and posters. The project also
funded the creation of over 100 community art centers around the country in
places deemed to be lacking in artistic culture. These centers provided artists
with a platform to exhibit their work, while also paying them to give art
lessons to the general public. By the time the Federal Art Project ended in
1943 it had employed as many as 10,000 artists, who produced hundreds of
thousands of works of art.
1938 the Federal Art Project sought to open an art center in Chicago
specifically for the African American community. This was significant, as the
racism and segregation policies of the time prevented African American artists
from being able to exhibit their works in most galleries. The Federal Art
Project would provide money for the artists’ salaries, but the center had to
provide a location itself. A group of artists, spearheaded by Margaret
Burroughs and Eldzier Cortor, organized numerous fundraisers to purchase a
brownstone building on South Michigan Avenue in Bronzeville. The structure was
originally built as a luxurious Classic Revival style home for wealthy grain
merchant George A. Seaverns Jr. and his family in 1892; some sources erroneously
stated that the home belonged to White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, who in
actuality lived farther down the avenue. As the demographics of the
neighborhood shifted from wealthy white families to African Americans, the home
was converted into apartments. After the house was purchased for the art
center, the interior was redesigned by Hin Bredendieck and Nathan Lerner in the
New Bauhaus style.
South Side Community Art Center was formally dedicated in a ceremony
broadcasted on CBS Radio and presided over by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on
May 7, 1941. It was one of only a few WPA-funded art centers for African
Americans, the others being opened in Florida and New York. The center was open
to people of all races, but focused specifically on African Americans who
otherwise lacked the opportunity to share their art. It offered free classes in
music, theater, poetry, creative writing, and various forms of art. Over the
years the center introduced a number of noteworthy artists such as Charles
White, George Neal, Bernard Goss, Margaret Burroughs, Archibald Motley, Eldzier
Cortor, and Gordon Parks. In 1943 the government ended all funding for the art
projects, and South Side was forced to keep fundraising to remain in operation.
The center nearly closed in the 1960s due to financial troubles, but was resuscitated
by the introduction of an annual art auction, which continues to this day.
the South Side Community Art Center continues to serve the area’s artistic needs,
hosting programs and classes, as well as displaying art exhibits. It has a
collection of over 400 works of art spanning more than seven decades. In November 2017 the center was designated a “National
Treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Recently it has been
undergoing renovation and restoration efforts, such as replacing the aging HVAC
system and making the building more handicap-accessible.