South Side Community Art Center Turns 75
BY PATRICIA ANDREWS-KEENAN
The story of the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) is best told through the gallery walls of its 1892 Gustav Hallberg designed building. The walls of the main gallery show every nail hole from every exhibit ever hung there. The inaugural exhibition of the Center, held in December 1940, featured works by Charles White, Bernard Goss, William Carter, Eldzier Cortor, Frank Neal and Archibald Motley, Jr.. Those first nail holes tell a story of a community committed to self-improvement and the belief that the arts hold a transformative power to enhance lives.
In 2015, SSCAC enters its 75th year and stands as one of the last surviving Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Arts Project (FAP) Centers and the oldest African American community art center in the country. Today the Center continues in its original mission to preserve, conserve and exhibit African American art and showcase African American artists.
In its early years the Center was a hive of activity, as well as a who’s who of the Chicago Renaissance. In addition to a series of frequently changing exhibitions, renowned artists George Neal, William Sylvester Carter, Charles Sebree, Katherine Bell, Joseph Kersey and Sylvester Britton taught art classes. Inez Cunningham Stark, the editor of Poetry magazine, taught a poetry class; her students included future Poet Laureate of Illinois Gwendolyn Brooks, as well as Margaret Danner, and Robert Davis.
Brooks, author Richard Wright, and Willard Motley attended a regular writers’ forum; on weekends musical legend Nat “King” Cole played jazz. Photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks kept a studio at the Center. Lessons offered for free at the Center included oil painting, drawing, composition, watercolor, sculpture, lithography, poster design, fashion illustration, interior decoration, silk screening, weaving, and hooked rug making. By March 1941, nearly 13,500 people had attended classes, exhibitions, and events at the Center.
SSCAC even received recognition from the White House when first Lady Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated the Center on May 7, 1941 in a ceremony that was broadcast nationwide on CBS radio. A gala celebration followed and featured national luminaries like singer Bessie Smith and actress Ethel Waters. The First Lady chronicled her visit to Chicago in the May 9, 1941 edition of her column “My Day.” Below is a portion of the entry:
At 3:15 (May 7, 1941) we went to the South Side Community Art Center to dedicate their building. … Chicago has long been a center of Negro art.
Many Negro artists have had a hard time getting their training and have starved as many artists do, even when they have achieved a certain amount of recognition. With the aid of federal money it (The Center) has been converted to its present purposes.
Many people were influential for the Center over the years. When the Center opened Dr. Margaret Goss Burroughs was one of its youngest board members; she continued her active involvement in numerous capacities until her death in 2010. A prolific fundraiser for SSCAC, she is often remembered for her “miles of dimes” fundraising campaign that was instrumental in SSCAC’s purchase of the Bauhaus remodeled building.
Today the SSCAC maintains its status as an active community resource under the leadership of Executive Director Maséqua Myers, a former student of Dr. Burroughs, and a committed board of directors, some with nearly 50 years of service. To mark the 75th anniversary SSCAC has developed a year of programming and events, including a revival of Off The Wall, Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green, which returns to the Harris Theater for Music and Dance on April 11. Green, a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, was a habitué of the Center and continues as a supporter. The Ballet is a collaboration of still art and dance and was first conceived by the Columbia City Ballet’s Executive and Artistic Director William Starrett after meeting Green in 2002. It debuted in Chicago in 2010 during the SSCAC’s 70th Anniversary celebration. As in 2010, there will be a special performance for Chicago Public School students. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel will serve as Honorary Chair of this 75th Anniversary event.
The Center will also host its 50th Annual Art Auction, as well as a recreation of its storied Artist and Models Ball, a showcase of the ‘avant garde’ that sometimes featured works on human canvases and was dubbed provocative for the time. Exhibitions for 2015 will include Black Comic Book Heroes, exhibits that pay homage to the Center’s founders as well as up and coming artists, and an exhibition partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Myers refers to SSCAC’s 75th as “soaring towards our diamond anniversary.” She says, “I look forward to bridging SSCAC’s legacy of historical excellence in traditional art with the brilliance of the artists of today. Our goal is to attract art lovers from all over the world.” Her vision is borne out as art historians and researchers have traveled to view the Center’s archives from as far away as England, Paris, Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire.
To learn more and support the center’s GoFundMe Campaign visit www.gofundme.com/dcw4pk
Historical data sourced from the SSCAC archives, ChicagoHistory.org, Wikipedia, Mapping the Stacks, WTTW.com, GWU.edu
Key image at top: Renowned artist Jonathan Green, fourth from left, poses with local students in front of his art work at the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) in 2010 when the Ballet based on his artwork, Off The Wall Onto the Stage: Dancing the Art of Jonathan Green, debuted at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. It returns to Chicago on April 11, in celebration of SSCAC’s 75th Anniversary.