Is the Next Arts District The Loop?


There was a time—back in the day—when Chicago’s Loop was the place to buy art. Writing in the Encyclopedia of Chicago, Lynne Warren, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, states that in the 19th century “Many [Chicago] artists set up ateliers or were associated with department stores, a phenomenon that continued well into the twentieth century, particularly with Marshall Field’s, which featured a fine-arts gallery until early in the 1950s.”

The gallery scene left downtown long ago for other neighborhoods, such as River North and the West Loop. But could the Loop, once again, support a concentration of galleries? The question is open to debate, and a few gallerists have recently opened on South Michigan Avenue, including LA transplant Bert Green, whose gallery features original works by contemporary artists, and Douglas Dawson who moved into the former Donald Young Gallery space in the historic Santa Fe Building.

The Chicago Loop Alliance is encouraging more arts-related businesses—such as Green’s and Dawson’s—to take up residence downtown. This past March, the Alliance unveiled “Transforming Wabash,” a plan that seeks to revitalize the historic Wabash Avenue corridor through a series of projects, including the establishment of an “Art Street” along Adams that would connect the Art Institute of Chicago with State Street and attract “arts and arts-related tenants for first and second floor storefronts.”

The Art Street would be one of several proposed “districts” along Wabash—including a hotel and nightlife district, a retail district, a makers district, and a university district—that would better link Michigan Avenue with State Street. 

“One of the big ideas in Transforming Wabash is connection,” says Michael Edwards, president and CEO of the Chicago Loop Alliance. “Right now Wabash, because of its design and conditions, tends to separate people from the energy of Millennium Park and from the energy of State Street.”

The El tracks dominate Wabash, creating a dark, loud, and uninviting pedestrian zone. But the Transforming Wabash plan envisions improvements that could help make the corridor a must-see Chicago experience. Public art projects and arts-related businesses would play significant roles in the plan.

“One of the great things about current economic conditions on Wabash is that the cost of entry is less [than other Loop areas],” says Edwards. “So there are spaces on Wabash that could be very affordable for different kinds of businesses that you’re not going to find on State Street.”

During the recession, the Alliance sponsored Pop-up Art Loop, which brought artists and art installations into vacant downtown storefronts. It became a way to show budding arts entrepreneurs what was possible within the context of the Loop. 

“Pop-up Art Loop was about activating vacant storefronts,” says Edwards. “Today, if you walk down Adams and look up one story, there appear to be underutilized and vacant second floor spaces that could be become homes for artists, or what we’re terming ‘makers.’”

The Transforming Wabash report indicates that these “makers” are typically defined as high-tech businesses that specialize in electronics, robotics, and 3-D printing, as well as metal and wood working, arts and crafts, calligraphy, film making, computer programming, gaming, fashion, and graphic design. 

The raw talent for these types of businesses already exists downtown, given the presence of the School of the Art Institute, Columbia College, and other university campuses. Development of a makers’ district becomes, in part, a matter of encouraging these students to stay in the Loop after they graduate.

“As an incubator street, I think that’s where the biggest value is,” says Tristan Hummel, the Chicago Loop Alliance’s program manager and curator, about the Wabash corridor. “Certainly, there’s a lot on the street that would suggest that we could attract [SAIC and Columbia College graduates] to stick around for a little while in an incubator-type setting.”

Hummel points to the murals around the intersection of Wabash and Van Buren as an example of how public art projects enhance the area and signal to creative types that Wabash is a place to locate their businesses. 

 “Columbia College has the WAC initiative—the Wabash Arts Corridor—they brought in Shepard Fairey, never2501, Retna, and all these great artists to create murals,” explains Hummel. “These are attractive pieces in their own right, but also appealing to people who start thinking about how they can work in that area when they see art like that.” 

Encouraging public participation in downtown arts events has been a recent goal of the Chicago Loop Alliance. They point to the success of Activate, a series of outdoor parties that the Alliance hosts in different alleys around the Loop.

“It’s a great way to get new people engaged in the city,” says Edwards. “The Activate program engaged 143 artists—we paid them—and generated about $400,000 of economic impact over last season.”

Artistic remnants or “legacy pieces” of the Activate events can still be seen in several Loop alleys, including murals by local artists and collaboratives, such as Chris Silva and Luftwerk. As this article goes to press, the Alliance is planning its 2015 Activate season and exploring the possibility of hosting one of its parties in an alley off of Wabash, drawing more attention to the Transforming Wabash plan and bringing the reality of a downtown “Art Street” one step closer.


The next Activate event is Friday, May 15, in the alley on Monroe between State/Wabash. Art curated by Johalla Projects. 

For information visit loopchicago.com/ACTIVATE