Turning 70 is quite a milestone for any community organization. However, marking seven decades is an absolute cause for celebration for the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC), located at 3831 S. Michigan Ave.
Borne of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Work Projects Administration (WPA), the center was created to support African-American artists at various points of their careers. Since opening its doors in December 1940, countless artists and writers have been sheltered and nurtured behind the walls of the weathered brownstone, which, although showing definite signs of aging, manages to look resilient on its desolate block in Bronzeville.
In the first few decades, painters and sculptors who would go on to distinguish themselves internationally exhibited their early works at the center. Henry Avery, William Carter, Charles White, Archibald Motley, Jr., Joseph Kersey, Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs and Bernard Goss, Marian Perkins and William McBride are a few of the names whose masterpieces are now found among the center’s permanent collection.
Faheem Majeed, acting executive director of the SSCAC, has made preservation of the center’s irreplaceable permanent collection one of his highest priorities. A gift from the American Express Foundation, coupled with state funding, will provide a climate controlled storage space for the 350-piece collection.
Ultimately, Majeed, 33, hopes to exhibit a portion of the collection in one of three gallery spaces at the center. For now, he runs concurrent exhibitions in two galleries where opening nights attract an average of 100 people, thanks to new media promotion that includes a Facebook fans page. The first floor gallery, which through March 1 is exhibiting a collection of posters by Jonathan Green, typically houses a show curated by Majeed. The second-floor gallery provides artists the opportunity to curate, hang and promote the shows themselves, giving them hands-on experience at operating a gallery.
Historically, WPA art work was owned by the government. However, one of the provisions that founders of the SSCAC struck with the government allowed for the center to own its own collection. Not only did the SSCAC gain rights to the works produced by some of Chicago’s most prolific artists, it secured its autonomy from WPA as well.
“The real reason we are still around is because we owned our own space,” explained Majeed. “We are one of few WPA-funded centers still in the same facility, still operational.”
Although federal funds paid initially for the remodeling of the building, as well as administrative staff and faculty, a community-wide, three year fundraising effort, began in the late 1930s, raised enough money to pay for the lease and purchase of the building. The SSCAC is the oldest black arts center in existence and has a library of historical photographs to prove it. There’s even one of Eleanor Roosevelt and SSCAC board members taken at the dedication of the building in 1941.
The center has not only survived, but has managed to periodically thrive thanks to long-term community investment and hard-working boards. According to Majeed, trustees have traditionally done everything, beginning with giving of their own money in order to keep the doors open. “They even came down and washed the walls and hung the art,” explains Majeed.
The SSCAC’s knack for revival has been key to its survival. Federal support of the center ceased with the advent of World War II and by the 1950s, it was experiencing major financial challenges. Well-to-do supporters stepped up to revive the Artists’ and Models’ Ball and created an art auction. In an economy in which funding sources are drying up, Majeed says the center continues to raise between 20 and 30 percent of its operating budget at its annual auction where artists showcase their works to be sold.
The current SSCAC board of directors has earned glowing accolades for its 70th anniversary fundraising effort. Headed by Diane Dinkins Carr, the board has raised close to $130,000 in a staging of “Off the Wall and Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green.” The acclaimed ballet celebrating Green’s vibrant paintings will be performed at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph St., Feb. 27 at 7:30 p.m. It’s the Chicago premiere of the show that was first staged by the Columbia (South Carolina) City Ballet in 2005.
“It’s going to be a great event,” said Diane Dinkins Carr, president of the SSCAC’s Board of Directors. "General admission tickets are still available, so please come out and support the center’s 70th anniversary fundraising event. Proceeds will help us to expand our programming so that we can hire more faculty and offer more arts classes.”
According to Majeed, who holds a master’s in fine art from the University of Illinois at Chicago and who found his way to the center as a young artist in search of his own artistic niche, the SSCAC—even in the midst of a huge celebration—is not content to rest on its laurels, at least not on his watch.
The center holds after-school arts programs in two disadvantaged Chicago Public Schools. Graduate level students from the School of the Art Institute Chicago (SAIC), a partner with the SSCAC from the beginning, have for the past three years taken on-site classes in museum studies. A project spearheaded by faculty at the University of Chicago will result in online archiving of the center’s photographs, correspondences and minutes from meetings. This year, there are plans in the works to hire a development coordinator and an IT person. The former will help Majeed to lay down a long-range plan to refurbish the Bauhaus brownstone and to consider a badly needed second building.
At its formation, the center was a place where a burgeoning black bourgeoisie and black artists collided. It was a must-stop for the who’s who of black society whenever they came to town. In the cultural heyday of the early decades, a writer’s guild was formed and Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks, among others, held authors’ forums in the space. Last fall, Majeed revived the literary guild and Patrick Rivers, a prominent scholar and SAIC professor, was asked to head it up. The executive director’s vision for the center calls for the eventual transformation of a decrepit coach house on the property into a space for a writers’ and artists’ residency program.
While the center grapples with finding new bases of community support, it also seeks ways to keep black artists engaged. “It’s a challenging thing,” reflects Majeed. “Some artists are running away from traditional notions of black art, while others are holding on to the era of black romanticism—of positive images or borderline idealism. It’s not for me to determine what kind of art an artist makes. It’s my job to support that artist. They can all co-exist; there’s enough space for all.”