Part one: A new beginning for the South Side Community Arts Center | Bleader

Part one: A new beginning for the South Side Community Arts Center

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Heather Robinson
  • Elly Fishman
  • South Side Community Arts Center executive director Heather Robinson
It's easy to miss the South Side Community Arts Center on South Michigan Avenue. Unlike other art institutions, the SSCAC building does not advertise itself. The brick facade blends in with neighboring homes, and the small sign is barely visible from the street. Inside, the front entrance is filled with historical photographs, pamphlets for local shows, and paintings from the center's upcoming show, "Women of a Certain Age." The place is rich with history and talent, but in dire need of a director who can carve out its role in Chicago's contemporary art community. That's why Heather Robinson was hired.

Robinson, whose background is in theater and nonprofit work, took over as executive director of the center in January. She sees the array of nail holes as a historical mapping of past exhibitions and describes the former glory of a dilapidated room with delight. Her vision for revitalizing the SSCAC is rooted in its past. "We want to reclaim the stated mission and restore the art center to its original glory," says Robinson. "We are going to reestablish it as a world-class institution. And this means a rebirth here at the center.”

The South Side Community Arts Center was founded in 1940 with money from the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Arts Project. According to the SSCAC’s application for Chicago Landmarks status (which they received in 1994), the center’s goal was to develop a larger and more informed audience for community-based art. “While the WPA funding was something, the community had to raise the rest of the money to buy the building and the land," says Robinson. "Margaret Burroughs [cofounder of the DuSable Museum] led the initiative. And this became an important pride point for the community.”

In the 1940s, the excitement and esteem around the SSCAC made it an important venue for both WPA artists and Chicago-based African-American artists. It was a place where they could develop their work and base themselves in a community. Some of the first artists associated with the center were Gordon Parks, Margaret Burroughs, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Today, the SSCAC is struggling. The center no longer plays as visible a role in the community, and the institution has had money problems (federal funding was cut off in 1943). This is something Robinson hopes to change. "I’m here now to stabilize programming, membership, and the finances. We’re restarting Saturday arts classes for children and adults, and hoping to increase funding through auctions and galas." The moment is ripe for Robinson’s ideas, as Chicago’s 2012 Cultural Plan is heavily focused on funding community arts initiatives. However, enthusiasm is not enough and the amount of work is immense. Luckily, for the SSCAC there is a logical first step: their art collection.

Part two is here.


"Women of a Certain Age" opens at the South Side Community Arts Center (3138 S. Michigan) on Saturday, March 24, with a reception from 2 to 5 PM.

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