By John Krupa, AB’01
Photo by Jason Smith

[Jazz fest] has a really wonderful feel. It definitely brings people into [venues] they don’t usually go to ”
—Irene Sherr
HyPa Executive Director

The vacant storefront at 5225 S. Harper Avenue sat shuttered and empty earlier this summer.

But by July, the abandoned space had transformed into a bustling, avant-garde exhibition hall, hosting free poetry readings, film screenings, and interpretive dance.

The metamorphosis could never have happened without the Hyde Park Alliance for Arts and Culture, says artist Laura Shaeffer, who hosted the showings.

The Hyde Park alliance, also called HyPa, has led the charge to grow the arts and culture scene in Hyde Park and its surrounding neighborhoods since 2009. HyPa markets the region’s cultural offerings, hosts the annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival, and offers direct support to artists.

In Shaeffer’s case, HyPa provided liability insurance coverage so she could secure a space for her project, dubbed the “Opportunity Shop.”

“This liability insurance was a necessity to make us sound and legal,” Shaeffer says. “We are really appreciative to HyPa.”

HyPa’s Beginning

A group of Hyde Park cultural leaders dreamed up HyPa during a meeting at the University of Chicago around 2006. Sheryl Papier, vice president of marketing and communications for the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, says the group identified the need for an organization to promote arts and culture in Hyde Park with a collective voice. HyPa earned nonprofit status in February 2009, and Papier became president of the Board of Directors.

The organization’s bottom-line mission is to promote Hyde Park and the surrounding mid-South Side as Chicago’s “premier cultural destination,” says HyPa Executive Director Irene Sherr.

The area boasts a plethora of cultural assets, including theaters, dance troupes, museums, and the University. Still, the region is a hidden jewel for many. Some city tourism brochures leave the whole south side off the map, Sherr says.

“We still have to work to educate Chicago residents and tourists,” Sherr says. “This geographic area of the city is a greater arts and cultural destination, excluding downtown, than any other neighborhood in Chicago.”

Supporting Local Artists

HyPa also supports local artists. Melissa Weber, who works with ceramics, recently lost a bid for a fellowship to open a studio dedicated to demystifying the artistic process for the public.

But HyPa stepped in and connected Weber to the University of Chicago. The school offered her use of vacant storefront space it owned along E. 53rd Street.

Weber and two other artists will share the space, which sits near a busy intersection across from a coffee shop. The project, called Art Here, Art Now, will take place in October during Chicago Artists Month and will be hosted by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.

“The project is really special because it makes art visible,” Weber said. “The more engaged the public becomes in supporting the arts and understanding it, the greater the chance they make it a part of their lives.”

Chicago’s Southern Cultural Coast

HyPa’s most well-known project is the Jazz Festival, co-hosted by the University, set for Sept. 25. There will be 45 performances at about a dozen indoor and outdoor locations spread across Hyde Park. About 20,000 people attended last year. Many had never visited Hyde Park before, Sherr says.

“[Jazz fest] has a really wonderful feel ” Sherr says. “It definitely brings people into [venues] they don’t usually go to.”

Papier, president of the HyPa board, says a major goal for the future is branding the area Chicago’s “cultural coast.”

“We want residents and tourists to know that while they are in Chicago planning weekend events, that the southern cultural coast of Chicago is something they absolutely have to consider.”

Originally published on August 23, 2010.