Art Builds Community in Uptown FLATS


In Uptown, one block off the Wilson red line El stop, is the old Wilson Avenue Theatre - a former vaudeville theatre and site of one of Charlie Chaplin’s early performances. It was recently a TCF Bank. Today it is FLATS STUDIO, an arts center associated with FLATS apartments, based on a simple hope that art can build community. 

The grand foyer of the space has a high arched ceiling, and stark white walls are framed by Corinthian columns. With bare bones lighting and temporary walls that are more like large signboards, FLATS STUDIO possesses a raw, rustic feeling that strikes an appropriate aesthetic balance for the neighborhood. 

Uptown itself is a mix of million dollar homes and run down or abandoned spaces. You see a Starbucks on one block and a Dollar Store on the next. “We really wanted to use this space,” said Jay Michael, co-founder of FLATS, “as a means of bridging the gap between development and gentrification.” Since the first show in September 2014, the gallery has attracted a diverse audience including members of the community, SAIC professors and students, artists, and tenants from FLATS apartments. “We did not create FLATS STUDIO for our tenants, but it has been exciting to see them at the events,” said Michael. FLATS STUDIO hosts an opening for each show on the third Friday of each month.

The gallery’s December show, Playtime, featured work by roughly 10 artists, all of whom explored a different approach to the idea of play. In the center of the room was a small plastic slide and other playground structures. Nearby was work by artist and FLATS STUDIO co-curator Edward Muela: two orange paper mache rifles with arms and fingers poised in a gun shape (the thumbs up) for the barrels. And in a back room, on the bars of a defunct bank vault door, was a nice blue neon light bent into an elegant flourish.

The next show planned for FLATS STUDIO will be a collaboration with Chicago Public Schools, featuring work by high school juniors and seniors. SAIC graduate and co-curator Audra Jacot has a Bachelor’s degree in sculpture and a Masters in Art and Technology. Jacot is also a substitute teacher for the CPS Advanced Arts Program. “I am very excited about this show, and the students are extremely excited to show their work outside of the classroom.”

While art was not the focus when FLATS was formed, Michael said the desire to incorporate art into the business was natural, “and we’re only moving forward.” Prior to FLATS STUDIO, the company used vacant ground level commercial space in their buildings for exhibitions. For a year, JC Steinbrunner hosted his Salon Series at the FLATS 1325 Wilson Ave. location. Before that, Chicago artist and Bravo’s Work of Art contestant, Young Sun Han, curated pop up shows featuring work by other local artists.

Artists for the FLATS STUDIO are selected by an application process. “In general, what we are looking for is a show theme,” said Jacot. All of the artists featured are local, which is important to Michael and Jacot, in order to keep the program centered on Chicago. “We want all aspects of our business to be hyper-local.”

In January the FLATS offices will move to Uptown’s former Salvation Army building, where they will display photography from Chicago-based Co-Edit Collection, a website that sells work by professional commercial photographers. Co-Edit was founded by Chicago-based photographer Tim Klein. “We just let Tim take over the space,” said Michael. Michael has also curated a section of work on Co-Edit’s site. 

FLATS residential spaces are also filled with original art, each building featuring the work of one artist. At 4875 Magnolia photographs by Bob Rehak adorn the walls. In the 1970s Rehak lived and worked in Uptown and photographed residents. “Rehak’s work is almost the precursor to the site ‘Humans of New York,’” said Michael of the popular website that features portraits of everyday people on the streets of New York City. Hanging Rehak’s work in Uptown is a subtle way of connecting current residents with the past. 

“We have had a lot of fun meeting all of the artists,” said Jacot, and with such a large number of artists applying to show in the space, she is excited about all of the possibilities.

In addition to supporting the arts through exhibitions, FLATS offers artists reduced rent to live in the studio apartments. To apply artists must demonstrate a commitment to their work and be below a certain annual salary. “This is another way we can support the arts,” said Michael. In the future, FLATS will include work space for artists, including a metal shop, woodworking facilities, and other amenities.

FLATS STUDIO may not have been in Michael’s original company design, but it has certainly made a strong impression.