African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund
South Side Community Art Center
Dedicated by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941, the South Side Community Art Center was one of nearly 100 art centers established by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. Since that time, it has served as a cultural and artistic hub in Chicago, fostering emerging African American artists and showcasing established talent while connecting South Side residents to art through exhibits, classes, lectures, and other educational programming. The center is the only Works Progress Administration art center still operating as established in its original building.
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The center has been instrumental in showcasing works by prominent African American artists of the 20th century, including poet Gwendolyn Brooks—the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize—and Life magazine photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks. Other noted artists whose works were featured at the center include William Carter, Charles White, Archibald Motley, Jr., Dr. Margaret Taylor Burroughs, and Eldzier Cortor.
The Great Migration and the Need for Art
Around 1915, the onset of the Great Migration brought millions of African Americans to Northern cities. Hundreds of thousands of people came to Chicago to search for jobs and to escape the racist ideology and a lack of social and economic opportunities in the South. However, Jim Crow segregation laws in Chicago forced African Americans looking for a brighter future to live and work in specific areas like the South Side's Bronzeville.
Despite the difficulties of segregation, a strong and active African American middle class with a hunger for cultural resources emerged in Bronzeville. While the African American arts community thrived with the creation of the South Side Art Association and the Arts and Crafts Guild, the Great Depression made employment in the arts especially difficult. Bronzeville’s community was primed for a federally funded arts program as artists and community leaders recognized the need for arts education.
Leading the Charge for Art Education
President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted several federal programs through his famous New Deal, but the Works Progress Administration (WPA), created in 1935, was the largest. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt focused on the Federal Art Project, a WPA program, as the center of her advocacy efforts in the New Deal. She encouraged the president to sign the executive order that created the Federal Art Project and other arts projects under Federal Project Number One, praised the projects in her “My Day” columns and speeches, and defended them against Congressional critics.
The creation of the Federal Art Project inspired activists and artists like Dr. Margaret Taylor Burroughs, Peter Pollack, and Pauline Kigh Reed to create an art center in the South Side community. Although the Federal Art Project would pay staff salaries at the center, local leaders were responsible for raising funds to acquire and maintain a building.
Fundraising plans began in 1938 with pledges from founding members, a “Mile of Dimes” campaign, art exhibitions, and other activities. Social and civic organizations and local businesses stepped forward to support the center by sponsoring exhibitions, providing meeting spaces, and donating funds. Women’s organizations, including the Illinois Housewives Association, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, and the Federated Women’s Clubs, actively supported the effort, too.
A more elaborate fundraiser for the center was the Artists and Models Ball which would become a major fundraiser in years to come. The first ball took place on October 23, 1939 at the Savoy Ballroom and featured a wide range of entertainment, including an art exhibit, music and dancing, food, prizes, and a parade of models dressed in costumes designed by local artists.
Old Home Architecture, New Bauhaus Design
By the time a house was purchased for the center in 1940, the South Side—despite its somewhat fluid boundaries—was well-known for its distinct cultural identity. The chosen structure, a 3½-story Classical Revival home constructed in 1892, was built in the then-wealthy neighborhood and was well-suited to the lavish lifestyle of George A. Seaverns, Jr., his wife Clara Seaverns, and their two sons. In the early 20th century, as wealthy white families moved away, the home was eventually converted into apartments in what had become an African American neighborhood.
Credited with transforming the home’s interior into a modern art gallery as part of the Works Progress Administration were Hin Bredendieck and Nathan Lerner, two prominent figures in the New Bauhaus school. The Bauhaus school was founded in Weimar, Germany in 1919, and its principles brought art and architecture together through modern designs that radically departed from traditional styles. While the original Bauhaus school closed due to the rise of Nazism in Germany, the New Bauhaus school opened in Chicago in 1937 under the leadership of Laszlo Maholy-Nagy.
The building’s entry foyer and first-floor gallery were transformed using Bauhaus design principles of simplicity and functionality. The rooms included wide, vertical wood planks that ran continuously around the walls, even covering doors and some window openings with hinged panels that could be opened or closed. When closed, each room reflected an uninterrupted visual appearance.
Sustained by Artists, for Artists
Once the center was officially dedicated on May 7, 1941, leaders began a full schedule of activities to accomplish its goals, including employment for African Americans, engaging young people, cultivating new talent, and raising the Bronzeville community’s cultural and artistic awareness. The center’s programming focused on activities for children and adults, including music education classes, musical performances, creative writing and poetry classes, children’s theater, and art classes.
The center employed black and white faculty, and welcomed black and white patrons and students. However, the center primarily focused on supporting and encouraging the careers of African American artists who were routinely denied the opportunity to exhibit their work in white-owned galleries. Additionally, children’s art classes were targeted toward African-American children in support of their cultural education.
The center's programming supported the work of many African American artists, but artists also sustained its efforts to become a spotlight on the African American community. Acclaimed artists Dr. Margaret Taylor Burroughs, Charles Wilbert White, and Eldzier Cortor were all charter members of the Center, and Rex Goreleigh served as the center’s director from 1944 to 1947.
Dr. Margaret Taylor Burroughs, a visual artist, writer, poet, educator, and arts organizer, was the youngest founding member to sign her name to the center's original charter. Involved at the center as a docent in the art gallery as well as a teacher and exhibitor, she was a beneficiary of exposure to other African American artists. Upon her death in 2010, President Barack Obama praised her as an “esteemed artist, historian, educator and mentor” who was also “admired for her generosity and commitment to underserved communities through her children's books, art workshops, and community centers that both inspired and educated young people about African American culture.”
Charles Wilbert White painted several large murals depicting African American history, including "The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America," which today hangs at Hampton Institute, a historically black university in Hampton, Virginia. "Five Great American Negroes," another mural that depicts Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Marian Anderson, and George Washington Carver, was displayed at the 1939 Artists and Models Ball to help raise funds for the center.
Eldzier Cortor’s paintings were among the first on exhibit at the center. He was one of the first African American artists to make African-American women the theme of his work, although his paintings of nude women were controversial at the time. Rex Goreleigh curated exhibits at the center during his time as director, and his watercolor paintings were on display at an exhibit in 1944.
Other notable artists whose works were featured at the center include sculptors Elizabeth Catlett, Richmond Barthé, Richard Hunt, and Marion Perkins; photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks; painter Jacob Lawrence; book illustrator Vernon Winslow; poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Martha Danner; painter and printmaker Hughie Lee-Smith; and visual artist Archibald Motley, Jr.
Planning for the Center’s Future
Celebrating its 76th anniversary in 2017, South Side Community Art Center is at a critical moment. The Center remains an invaluable resource to Chicago’s South Side and continues to offer a wide range of programs for the community.
However, the South Side Community Arts Center’s Classical Revival style building hasn’t undergone a major rehabilitation in decades and requires substantial renovation. Its HVAC system is antiquated and isn’t adequate for either the center’s art exhibits or its expansive repertoire of public programs. The center is actively seeking support to address these issues so that its mission can continue to be fulfilled.
The National Trust will work together with South Side Community Art Center leadership, providing expertise to ensure that its rehabilitation includes preserving the building’s historic character. These two dynamic organizations will foster new opportunities for programming and events that will continue to serve, inspire, and enrich South Side’s community for generations to come.
Ensure the rehabilitation of the building’s historic character and foster new opportunities to serve, inspire, and enrich the South Side community.
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