The South Side Community Art Center keeps beating the odds.
When we arrive at the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) (3831 S Michigan Ave), acting executive director Faheem Majeed is giving a tour to a class from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). As we follow the group through the SSCAC’s 19th-century Bronzeville mansion, Majeed describes how University of Chicago students are helping the center improve its archives and storage. The building’s interior—remodeled in 1940 by artist Nathan Lerner and designer Hin Bredendieck when they were teaching at the New Bauhaus (later part of IIT)—is both elegant and cozy, with colorful artwork set off by simple dark wood paneling.
Majeed’s tour reveals the SSCAC’s strong ties to several Chicago colleges and universities, but its connection to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) has stood out since the center’s founding 70 years ago. On Friday 2, the SSCAC opens “Recession,” a group show highlighting artists affiliated with both institutions. Black SAIC graduates, including Charles White (1918–79), Archibald Motley (1891–1981) and Margaret Burroughs, served as many of the SSCAC’s instructors and administrators. (Burroughs, 92, cofounded the DuSable Museum of African American History.) Pieces by all three are included in “Recession,” along with paintings, sculptures and other works by artists such as Elizabeth Catlett, Richard Hunt, Jonathan Green, Lorenzo Pace and Barbara Jones-Hogu.
Over the past few decades, the relationship between SAIC and the SSCAC faltered, in part because the once-remarkable percentage of black students at SAIC decreased—to approximately 3.9 percent of the entire student population today, according to James Britt, the school’s director of multicultural affairs. Some black artists’ fears that showing their work at a black-oriented institution would limit them exacerbated the rupture, but SAIC alum Stanley Kincaid became determined to repair it. “A lot of my friends in school were from the South Side and they brought me down to the center,” Kincaid recalls. The Waukegan native, who attended SAIC in the 1970s, was thrilled by the SSCAC’s vibrant lineup of exhibitions, receptions and other events. About six years ago, he introduced Britt to Majeed, encouraging the duo to collaborate.
Since then, SAIC and the SSCAC have organized four joint exhibitions, and Drea Howenstein, chair of SAIC’s art-education department, began holding classes at the center. “It was a little weird at first,” Majeed says. “The students weren’t even familiar with Chicago, let alone Bronzeville, but then they started to get comfortable. Now you can’t kick them out.” Some went on to teach art at local public schools or work for the SSCAC. “A lot of the students say, ‘I like this space because it’s a community, and we don’t have a community,’?” he explains.
Though Britt had hoped the SSCAC would give SAIC’s black students a sense of community, they “aren’t as connected as we had anticipated,” he admits. “Some don’t feel like identifying in that particular way. It’s not that they’re ashamed of being black; [they think] it’s marginalizing.” He’s happy the SSCAC has attracted a racially diverse group of students who “understand that what it means to be an artist is to go outside the periphery. That’s what this institution represents.”
The artists in “Recession” share a commitment to the center’s grassroots approach, Britt tells us. He sees an affinity between older works such as Unite (pictured, 1971), a print by AfriCOBRA cofounder Jones-Hogu, and Ray Noland’s Obama posters, which also consider “what it means to be a person of color. What does democracy mean? What does hope mean?”
The title “Recession” refers not to the artworks’ subject matter but to the SSCAC’s turbulent but rich history. Founded during the Depression, the center’s thrived despite the loss of its federal Works Progress Administration funding, Red Scare persecution, Bronzeville’s post-1950s decline and various economic downturns. We’re not worried about it surviving this one.
“Recession” opens at the South Side Community Art Center Friday 2, 6–9pm.