By Susie Allen
Photo by Robert Kozloff

The University of Chicago is committed not only to supporting healthy, vibrant communities on the South Side, but also to pioneering new kinds of engagement with our neighbors.”
—Derek Douglas
UChicago's vice president for Civic Engagement

At the opening of the University of Chicago’s Arts Incubator in Washington Park, poet avery r. young reflected on the transformative power of the arts in a poem written to celebrate the day.

“We turn bone into beautiful,” said young, one of the incubator’s 2012-2013 artists-in-residence. “Dust into magic.”

Michelle Boone echoed that theme as she discussed the remarkable career of the Arts Incubator’s director, Theaster Gates. Boone, the city of Chicago’s commissioner for the arts, recalled taking a train ride several years earlier with the young artist, who was dressed in worn jeans and a worn sweater.

“Look at him now,” she teased the dapperly dressed Gates, now a major international artist. “This is what the arts can do for you!”

Growth and transformation on many levels are central to the mission of the new Arts Incubator, which opened on March 8. The new facility provides a dedicated space for artists to grow professionally and build creative connections with the surrounding community.

“The University’s commitment to expanding our work in the arts takes many forms, and our new Arts Incubator is the most recent addition to this arts fabric,” said President Robert J. Zimmer. “It will provide a venue for artists, particularly those from the South Side communities, their work and experimentation, and their interaction with the University of Chicago faculty, students, and staff. We believe this will be an important addition to both the University and the South Side.”

The newly renovated building includes 10,000 square feet of studio space for artists-in-residence, a woodshop for design apprenticeship programming, and additional program space for exhibitions and events. The Arts Incubator is housed in a two-story, terra cotta building dating to the 1920s that sat unused for 20 years.

New opportunities for artists on the South Side

The Arts Incubator’s programs include an innovative artist residency program, which unites professional development opportunities for artists with the University’s efforts to enhance the cultural amenities of the Washington Park community. The program, presented in partnership with the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at UChicago, garnered more than 150 applications this year, and is a much-needed opportunity for Chicago-based artists, according to Gates.

“Artists need space and resources to deepen their practices, share their wares, perform their chops, and communities like Washington Park benefit from new sources of creative energy. That’s why artists are such an essential element of a successful social space,” said Gates, director of the Arts and Public Life initiative. “I’m excited the University of Chicago has embraced this innovative model for community engagement and shown such willingness to think about new ways we can be good neighbors and collaborators on the South Side.”

The incubator is an outgrowth of Gates’ ongoing work with the Rebuild Foundation and Dorchester Projects, creative redevelopment projects designed to revitalize abandoned properties in Chicago’s Grand Crossing neighborhood and throughout the Midwest.

The University purchased the Arts Incubator building in 2008 and invested $1.85 million in renovations. The incubator also received a $400,000 grant from ArtPlace, an organization that supports creative place-making efforts across the United States.

“The University of Chicago is committed not only to supporting healthy, vibrant communities on the South Side, but also to pioneering new kinds of engagement with our neighbors,” said Derek Douglas, the University’s vice president for Civic Engagement. “Projects like the Arts Incubator, which melds culture and community in novel ways, are integral to that mission.”

Third Ward Alderman Pat Dowell also offered her support for the project.

“The Arts Incubator is a great new addition to Garfield Boulevard and all of Washington Park, bringing new vitality to the area around the Green Line Garfield ‘L’ station,” Dowell said. “The renovation of this beautiful terra cotta building and the activity that will happen there will serve as both an example and a catalyst for what is possible on this historic boulevard.”

Building creative connections

The Arts Incubator is the signature project of the University’s Arts and Public Life initiative, which was created in 2011 to foster collaboration and conversation between the University and the civic, cultural, and artistic communities of the South Side. Arts and Public Life holds programs at the incubator, the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts and throughout the city.

The Arts Incubator already has formed ongoing partnerships with South Side arts and civic organizations including the Washington Park Consortium, South East Chicago Commission, KLEO (Keep Loving Each Other) Community Family Life Center, Urban Gateways Center for Arts Education, and the Washington Park Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to the residency program, the Arts Incubator is home to an exhibition and performance space. The incubator’s inaugural exhibition, Feedback, engages with the concepts of collaboration, dialogue and exchange. Artwork, various programs, and a public dinner, comprise Feedback, which begins within the confines of the first-floor exhibition space and reverberates into the Washington Park community through acts of publicly displayed works and performances. Artist-in-residence Cauleen Smith’s Park Interiors: 17 Possible Directions, silkscreened wallpaper adhering to the exterior of buildings from 118-132 E. Garfield Blvd., is currently on view.

Feedback runs through April 27 and features the work of Terry Adkins, Blanche Bruce, Alexandria Eregbu, Nyeema Morgan, Abbéy Odunlami, and Kamau Patton, as well as artists-in-residence Smith and Cecil McDonald Jr.

The Arts Incubator also will host arts education programming, including a design apprenticeship program for teens and adults in neighboring communities, providing resources and skills training for redevelopment and beautification projects along Garfield Boulevard.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Gates said he hoped the new building would gradually become an integral part of the Washington Park community. “The thing I want to do is focus on…having this building act as a creative catalyst, both as a home to things happening inside and things radiating outward from it.”