Nation’s Leading Historic Preservation Organization Names Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center a National Treasure
Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center, a landmark in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood and a groundbreaking institution that was instrumental in launching the careers of many nationally known African American artists when many galleries would not exhibit their work, was today named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Originally dedicated by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941, the Center was one of nearly 100 art centers established by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art project, a Great Depression-era program to expose the public to art while providing useful work for unemployed artists and teachers. Over the past 75 years, the Center fostered the careers of leading African American artists including William Carter, Charles White, Archibald Motley, Jr., and Dr. Margaret Burroughs, as well as the poet Gwendolyn Brooks—the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize—and Life magazine photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks. Today, the Center is the only one of the original WPA art centers that continues to operate in the same building and in the manner in which it was established by the WPA.
While helping to break barriers and support the careers of prominent artists, the Center has always been much more than museum or gallery space—serving the South Side community as a cultural center where generations of residents connect to art through exhibits, classes, lectures, and other creative programming. In addition to its cultural teachings, the Center has also long served as a beacon of tolerance and openness. In what was a highly unusual circumstance for its day, the Center openly pursued a policy of racial integration, with both white and black representatives on its faculty and board.
“The South Side Community Art Center helps to tell an important story about African American artists at a time when segregation and racism prevented many of them from more fully contributing to the cultural life of the United States,” said Stephanie Meeks, president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “The Center has long been a beacon of tolerance and understanding, using art to enrich the community while serving as a welcoming place for people from all walks of life. We look forward to shining a light on this lesser-known chapter in our nation’s cultural history, and helping to guide the Center to a new future grounded in an appreciation of the past.”
“For 75 years, people who walk through the doors of the South Side Community Art Center have been able to experience something they can’t find anywhere else,” said Masequa Myers, Executive Director of the Southside Community Art Center. “Not only do people who come here see fantastic art from brilliant artists, they also get a chance to step back in time and experience the history of this building that has inspired generations of artists over the years. We have always been a place of hope and opportunity for African American artists and members of the community, and with this designation, I know the South Side Community Art Center will continue to be a place that celebrates, supports and helps tie this community together for generations to come.”
Despite the Center’s significance and its continued importance to the community, it is building in need of substantial renovation. The Georgian-Revival style former residence and boarding house, converted into galleries and classroom space in 1940, has not had major rehabilitation work in decades. The HVAC system is antiquated and not appropriate for either the artwork or public programs, and some artists will not exhibit their works at the Center due to these conditions—all of which impacts the Center’s ability to fulfill its mission.
As we continue to embrace the preservation of places that tell the often-overlooked stories of African Americans and their many contributions to our nation’s cultural fabric, the South Side Community Art Center clearly deserves preservation and greater recognition. The National Trust will provide expertise and technical assistance to ensure that the Center’s rehabilitation ensures preservation of the building’s historic character while also providing new opportunities for programming and events that will serve, inspire, and enrich the community for generations to come.
The Center is housed in a former residence built in 1892 for a prominent Chicago businessman in what was then an upscale, largely white neighborhood. During the Great Migration of the early 20th century, Chicago’s African-American population grew dramatically and the home was converted into a rooming house. Efforts to convert the house from apartments into galleries and classrooms began in 1940, under the auspices of the Federal Art Project. Reflecting the importance of the creation of the Center to area residents, the community raised funds for a nonprofit to purchase the building by collecting “A Mile of Dimes” on street corners around Bronzeville, and also via an “Artists and Models’ Ball,” an annual event held between 1938 and about 1960 that was both a prominent South Side social event and the largest source of funding for the Center in its early years.
The building’s interior is also a significant aspect of the Center’s history. The conversion of the house into an art center was done according to plans by Hin Bredendieck and Nathan Lerner, two architects associated with the New Bauhaus, a school of design founded in Chicago in 1937 which ultimately became the Illinois Institute of Technology School of Design. The remodeling is a rare surviving example of the Chicago-based school of this internationally recognized movement.
About National Treasures
The National Trust for Historic Preservation mobilizes its more than 60 years of expertise and resources to protect a growing portfolio of National Treasures that are threatened buildings; neighborhoods, communities, and landscapes that stand at risk across the country. Our National Treasures program demonstrates the value of preservation by taking direct action to protect these places and promote their history and significance.