National Trust names South Side Community Art Center National Treasure

SHARE National Trust names South Side Community Art Center National Treasure
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South Side Community Art Center Executive Director Masequa Myers talks about the rich history of the center, designated as a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation at a press conference Tuesday. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

Dedicated by Eleanor Roosevelt on May 7, 1941, it was one of 100 art centers established by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, and the only one still standing.

But the South Side Community Art Center in Bronzeville — which became the nation’s first black art museum — has struggled in recent years in its mission to share with its neighborhood, city and nation the black experience as told through African Diasporan art.

That struggle becomes a little easier with the center’s designation as a National Treasure on Tuesday by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. While the federal landmark status comes with no funding, it brings a huge assist on future development strategy, national programming, and tourism.

“For 75 years, people who walk through our doors have been able to experience something they can’t find anywhere else,” said its longtime executive director, Masequa Myers. “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.”

Housed in a historically significant Georgian-Revival style former residence and boarding house converted into galleries and classroom space, the center is in dire need of renovation, having seen no rehab work in decades. Water damage still stains its ceilings, and its aged heating/cooling system prevents some artists from exhibiting there.

“We cannot sustain for another 76 years without the support of our surrounding community and the city of Chicago at large,” Myers said at the news conference by the Trust at the center, 3831 S. Michigan.

The center’s rich history includes nurturing careers of distinguished alumni including the DuSable Museum of African American History’s founder, Dr. Margaret Burroughs; noted artists William Carter, Charles White and Archibald Motley Jr.; Life magazine photographer/filmmaker Gordon Parks; and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks.

The building is also a rare surviving example of the architecture of Hin Bredendieck and Nathan Lerner, purveyors of the famed New Bauhaus school of design founded in Chicago in 1937. It’s the 21st African-American landmark among the Trust’s 93 National Treasures.

Barb Pahl (right), senior vice president of Field Services for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, shares the new designation of the South Side Community Art Center as a National Treasure, as the center’s Executive Director Masequa Myers looks o

Barb Pahl (right), senior vice president of Field Services for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, shares the new designation of the South Side Community Art Center as a National Treasure, as the center’s Executive Director Masequa Myers looks on at a press conference Tuesday. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

“Over 75 years ago, global artists and community leaders came together to transform this building into a center for arts. Since 1940, it has been a groundbreaking cultural institution, instrumental in launching careers of many nationally known African-American artists in a time when few galleries would exhibit African American work,” said the Trust’s Barb Pahl, senior vice president of field services.

“As our newest National Treasure, it becomes part of an evolving and diverse portfolio of over 90 of the most important and threatened historic places in America,” she said. “Across the country, the Trust is working with partners to tell a truer and more inclusive American story, and the South Side Community Art Center stands at the center of our work to identify and preserve the places that tell those stories.”

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