Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center was one of 16 grant winners among a total of 830 applicants across 42 states to win a grant from the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. An initiative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund is a program which seeks to preserve and promote African-American historic places across the county. The exact amount to be granted to the South Side Community Art Center remains unclear, but the National Trust expects to raise a total of $25 million over five years to preserve and highlight African-American historical contributions.
From the South Side Community Art Center: National Treasures, National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“History of the South Side Community Art Center: Dedicated by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941, the South Side Community Art Center at 3831 S. Michigan Avenue was one of nearly 100 art centers established by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. Since that time, it has served as a cultural and artistic hub in Chicago, fostering emerging African-American artists and showcasing established talent while connecting South Side residents to art through exhibits, classes, lectures, and other educational programming. The center is the only Works Progress Administration art center still operating as established in its original building.
The center has been instrumental in showcasing works by prominent African-American artists of the 20th century, including poet Gwendolyn Brooks—the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize—and Life magazine photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks. Other noted artists whose works were featured at the center include William Carter, Charles White, Archibald Motley, Jr., Dr. Margaret Taylor Burroughs, and Eldzier Cortor.
Despite the difficulties of segregation, a strong and active African-American middle class with a hunger for cultural resources emerged in Bronzeville. While the African-American arts community thrived with the creation of the South Side Art Association and the Arts and Crafts Guild, the Great Depression made employment in the arts especially difficult. Bronzeville’s community was primed for a federally funded arts program as artists and community leaders recognized the need for arts education.
Old Home Architecture, New Bauhaus Design: By the time a house was purchased for the center in 1940, the South Side—despite its somewhat fluid boundaries—was well-known for its distinct cultural identity. The chosen structure, a 3½-story Classical Revival home constructed in 1892, was built in the then-wealthy neighborhood and was well-suited to the lavish lifestyle of George A. Seaverns, Jr., his wife Clara Seaverns, and their two sons. In the early 20th century, as wealthy white families moved away, the home was eventually converted into apartments in what had become an African-American neighborhood.
Credited with transforming the home’s interior into a modern art gallery as part of the Works Progress Administration were Hin Bredendieck and Nathan Lerner, two prominent figures in the New Bauhaus school. The Bauhaus school was founded in Weimar, Germany in 1919, and its principles brought art and architecture together through modern designs that radically departed from traditional styles. While the original Bauhaus school closed due to the rise of Nazism in Germany, the New Bauhaus school opened in Chicago in 1937 under the leadership of Laszlo Maholy-Nagy.
The building’s entry foyer and first-floor gallery were transformed using Bauhaus design principles of simplicity and functionality. The rooms included wide, vertical wood planks that ran continuously around the walls, even covering doors and some window openings with hinged panels that could be opened or closed. When closed, each room reflected an uninterrupted visual appearance.
Sustained by Artists, for Artists: Once the center was officially dedicated on May 7, 1941, leaders began a full schedule of activities to accomplish its goals, including employment for African-Americans, engaging young people, cultivating new talent, and raising the Bronzeville community’s cultural and artistic awareness. The center’s programming focused on activities for children and adults, including music education classes, musical performances, creative writing and poetry classes, children’s theater, and art classes.
The center employed black and white faculty, and welcomed black and white patrons and students. However, the center primarily focused on supporting and encouraging the careers of African-American artists who were routinely denied the opportunity to exhibit their work in white-owned galleries. Additionally, children’s art classes were targeted toward African-American children in support of their cultural education.
The center’s programming supported the work of many African-American artists, but artists also sustained its efforts to become a spotlight on the African-American community. Acclaimed artists Dr. Margaret Taylor Burroughs, Charles Wilbert White, and Eldzier Cortor were all charter members of the Center, and Rex Goreleigh served as the center’s director from 1944 to 1947.
Other notable artists whose works were featured at the center include sculptors Elizabeth Catlett, Richmond Barthé, Richard Hunt, and Marion Perkins; photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks; painter Jacob Lawrence; book illustrator Vernon Winslow; poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Martha Danner; painter and printmaker Hughie Lee-Smith; and visual artist Archibald Motley, Jr.
Planning for the Center’s Future: Celebrating its 77th anniversary in 2018, South Side Community Art Center is at a critical moment. The Center remains an invaluable resource to Chicago’s South Side and continues to offer a wide range of programs for the community.
However, the South Side Community Arts Center’s Classical Revival style building hasn’t undergone a major rehabilitation in decades and requires substantial renovation. Its HVAC system is antiquated and isn’t adequate for either the center’s art exhibits or its expansive repertoire of public programs. The center is actively seeking support to address these issues so that its mission can continue to be fulfilled.
The National Trust will work together with South Side Community Art Center leadership, providing expertise to ensure that its rehabilitation includes preserving the building’s historic character. These two dynamic organizations will foster new opportunities for programming and events that will continue to serve, inspire, and enrich South Side’s community for generations to come.” (From the South Side Community Art Center: National Treasures, National Trust for Historic Preservation, www.SavingsPlaces.org)