South Side Community Art Center
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.
Backstory and Context
In 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.
In 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.
The 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.
Today 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.
ABC 7 Chicago. “South Side Community Art Center named national center” (video). Posted November 7, 2017. Accessed March 16, 2018. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=sq-zwzab2jo
Bacon, Angela, Melissa Barton, Mollie Godfrey, and Rachel Watson. “Guide to the Archives of the South Side Community Art Center, 1938-2008.” University of Chicago. September 2009. Accessed March 15, 2018. http://mts.lib.uchicago.edu/collections/findingaids/index.php?eadid=MTS.sscac#idm51073936
Bowean, Lolly. “South Side Community Arts Center named National Treasure.” Chicago Tribune. November 7, 2017. Accessed March 15, 2018. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-met-south-side-community-arts-treasure-20171106-story.html
Fishman, Elly. “Part one: A new beginning for the South Side Community Arts Center.” Chicago Reader. March 19, 2012. Accessed March 15, 2018. https://www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2012/03/19/part-one-a-new-beginning-for-the-south-side-community-arts-center
Fishman, Elly. “Part two: South Side Community Arts Center – the art guides us.” Chicago Reader. April 10, 2012. Accessed March 15, 2018. https://www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2012/04/10/part-two-south-side-community-arts-centerthe-art-guides-us
“South Side Community Art Center.” National Trust for Historic Preservation. Accessed March 15, 2018. https://savingplaces.org/places/sscac#.WqqSLUxFxaR
“South Side Community Art Center.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. Accessed March 15, 2018. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/73.html
“South Side Community Art Center.” City of Chicago. Accessed March 15, 2018. http://webapps.cityofchicago.org/landmarksweb/web/landmarkdetails.htm?lanId=1427
“WPA Federal Art Project.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed March 15, 2018. https://www.britannica.com/topic/WPA-Federal-Art-Project
Image 1: https://chicago.curbed.com/2017/11/7/16617884/bronzeville-community-arts-center-national-treasure
Image 2: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/195935
Image 3: https://openhousechicago.org/sites/site/south-side-community-art-center/