University of Chicago incubating art on the south side

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Outside the Arts Incubator, at the corner of Garfield Boulevard and Prairie Avenue
The corner of Garfield Boulevard and Prairie Avenue is a few blocks, a city park, and miles and miles of psychic space away from the libraries and quads of the University of Chicago. But 11 days ago, the university made its latest attempt to reach out to its Washington Park neighbors by opening the Arts Incubator, a new project developed by its Arts + Public Life Initiative, and already things are starting to happen.

The building is open to the public on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, where there have been performances and an ongoing visual arts exhibit, "Feedback."

"The response has been pretty awesome," says the project's director, the artist Theaster Gates. "Alderman [Pat] Dowell gave us a huge accolade. She said there have been rough spots in the relationship between the university and the neighborhood, and they were concerned that the university was opening the incubator here, but she's been pleased with the community response. She said it's a real asset to the neighborhood."

Gates says the Arts Incubator has been . . . incubating . . . since a year and a half ago, when the university decided that a parcel of land it owned on Garfield Boulevard just under the Green Line would be an ideal start for a community arts organization. One $1.85 million renovation project later, the Arts Incubator finally opened on March 8.

Theaster Gates
The Incubator has selected five local artists (from 150 who applied) to be the initial beneficiaries of its residency program, which includes a monthly stipend, studio or rehearsal space, and access to the university's libraries. They are spoken word artist avery r. young, digital artist Cauleen Smith, cellist Tomeka Reid, filmmaker and photographer Cecil McDonald Jr., and musician LeRoy Bach.

"They all had an interest in engaging directly with the community around us," Gates explains.

The Incubator has also approached local high schools to find students interested in participating in its Design Apprentice Program, which will pair young apprentices with experienced craftsmen to work on projects in the community, including turning a vacant lot into a pocket park and—Gates hopes—helping out some of the urban farming projects in Washington Park by building planters and benches and by creating public art in the neighborhood.

"I hope the Incubator is a catalyst," he says. "I hope that in three years, people are much more excited about things happening on the block. We're a committed partner. We want to make exciting things happen locally. There's culture happening on the south side. And if you take the Green Line from the South Loop, you can be here in seven and a half minutes."

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