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The Shirt on His Back

After years of nursing his Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center through rocky times, Chris Drew is looking for a way to smooth out the road ahead.

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A third-floor window was wide open and hot air was blowing through the room last Sunday at the American Indian Center on Wilson. Chris Drew, executive director (and just about everything else) at the Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center, which makes its home in a warren of dilapidated rooms there, kept an ear cocked toward the window and the street below. The front door was locked, and Drew was listening for latecomers to his free screen-printing workshop for artists. A half hour after starting time only two--Nancy Nicandro and Victor Twu--had shown up. When a third, Justin Attakai, arrived with a portfolio of pristine ink-on-paper drawings, Drew trekked downstairs to let him in.

Sixteen years after he founded it, Drew's center is still a barely funded, hardscrabble organization. Its pitch piece for donors says it's been "doing $75,000 worth of programming each year on less than $10,000 annual budget for too long." But Drew hasn't lost any of his zeal. He still believes that the UMCAC can become a self-sustaining community art agency, provide exposure and income for artists, and serve as a global force against racism--all by harnessing the power of the humble but ubiquitous T-shirt. All it'll take, he says, is $225,000 of seed money.

Drew is 52 years old, a product of the counterculture 60s in graying ponytail and one of his own Ts. A Minneapolis native, he piled up credits at the University of Minnesota without graduating, turned in his draft card, and in the late 70s teamed up with radical black artist Alvin Carter at a community center in Saint Paul, where he learned to screen-print and worked on community art projects, some funded by the Comprehensive Employment Training Act. Then Drew, who'd hitchhiked through Chicago and fallen in love with the el, read that Harold Washington had been elected mayor and decided to move. "I came here in 1984," he says. "Stayed in a flophouse and took classes at Truman College, across the street." In '87 he was working on a city-funded youth mural project at the People's Church at Lawrence and Sheridan. "At the unveiling, I announced there ought to be this sort of thing going on 24/7 in Uptown--said we needed an organization to do it," he says, recalling what he now sees as a prophetic moment: "Everyone clapped, and then they all went home and I had to clean up." Later that year he and artist Laillah Avdullah founded the UMCAC, running it out of the Clark Street office of Organization of the Northeast, where Avdullah had a part-time cleaning job. They built a gallery there and put up a couple of shows, "Artists Against Homelessness" and "Art of the T-shirt," before being kicked out in '89. Avdullah died that year of a brain tumor, and artist Robert Wapahi, now president of the group's artists-only (read: no money) board, helped it get resettled at the Indian Center.

Between 1990 and 1998, with the help of a few volunteers, Drew mounted two dozen more "Art of the T-shirt" shows (featuring artist-designed shirts) in public libraries. He also built his rudimentary screen-print studio and started the free classes, teaching artists his low-tech shortcuts for printing their own designs at home. In '96 the UMCAC began to showcase local artists in a half-hour time slot on cable Channel 21 for three months out of the year. (The current edition of the show, Printing T-shirt Art, runs at 7 PM Thursdays through September 25.) In '98 UMCAC launched a Web site, www.art-teez.org, where, among other things, it conducts a biannual international contest for antiracist T-shirt art. And this year Drew's experimenting with street fairs: UMCAC took in $480 in T-shirt sales at the Evanston Ethnic Arts Festival.

Drew married in '95, and since then he's supplemented his UMCAC income ($1,950 last year) with part-time jobs. But for 20 years prior to that, he says, "I'm proud to say I often lived on less than $10,000 a year, sometimes less than $2,000." When he appeared in the Reader's Hot Type column in '92 (in a story about a T-shirt exhibit controversy), he was homeless; between then and '95 he bunked where he worked, at the American Indian Center. "He's definitely an altruistic person," says artist Monica Brown, who's been involved with the UMCAC for about ten years. "I've made a lot of T-shirts up there."

In 1998, shortly after it had vocally objected to the closing of the North Lake View library, the UMCAC was turned down by the city for funding and barred by a policy change from reapplying for three years; Drew says with the size of city grants dwindling, he hasn't applied since. According to the center's Web site, its budget for the last ten years has ranged from a high of $20,000 in '94 to $6,800 two years ago. Last year it operated on $10,113, mostly funded through private contributions. The library exhibits were suspended in '99 for lack of funds, and an attempt to run a computer recycling center was recently taken over by the AIC after Drew decided it was off mission. His goal now is to grow UMCAC's Internet T-shirt sales, which is where the seed money would come in. UMCAC's three-year business plan calls for hiring Drew as full-time administrator (at $25,000 a year) with three part-time assistants, and projects that after three years "our Web site will be averaging hundreds of thousands of hits per week" and "we will be in a position to handle year four without our seed funders' support." In the future, Drew envisions a profitable artists' co-op T-shirt business that would support the organization's nonprofit activities. "Of course," he says, "these are big, wild dreams. The reality is we're selling two T-shirts a month on the Internet and trying to figure out how to sell 'em on the street."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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