When Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced his COVID-19 stay-at-home order on March 20, SkyART didn’t miss a beat. Realizing it could no longer offer classes and other programs at its South Side location, the non-profit art center immediately began helping its participants in other ways.
That very day, staffers scrounged together art materials from its studios and put together kits for use at home. They spread the word to some of the center’s regulars to stop by and pick up the supplies, and the offerings were depleted in minutes.
“We didn’t anticipate what the response would be,” said Devon VanHouten-Maldonado, assistant director of programs. “People came and lined up at the door and we ran out. And for us, it was like, ‘Wow, we need to keep doing this.’”
And that’s exactly what SkyART has done. In addition to taking some of its classes, art therapy and other programs online, a priority has been distributing more than 1,000 art kits to families as far south as 115th Street and as far north as Bronzeville.
“We’re a community organization on the front lines,” said executive director Sarah Ward. “We’ve always focused on being responsive to the community, and I think this pandemic has shown how responsive we are being without us really knowing it.”
Ward founded what was originally known as the South Chicago Art Center in 2001, teaching 18 students two days a week in a small rented studio. In 2015, it changed its name and moved into a 6,000-square-foot studio facility at 3026 E. 91st St., which includes three multipurpose art spaces, a computer lab and gallery.
SkyART bills itself as the only free art program of its kind in Chicago, normally reaching some 3,600 youths ages 3 to 24, with programs in its facilities as well as at several dozen schools and community organizations. It has an annual budget of $1.2 million, with 12 full- and part-time employees and more than 20 freelance art teachers and therapists.
In a recent survey of about 100 South Side families served by the center, more than 90 percent of the participants identified as people of color and many do not have access to the Internet. A study conducted by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research showed the median income in the neighborhoods served by SkyART is $29,582.
“It’s a population that is like 90 percent below the poverty line,” VanHouten-Maldonado said, “and they’re not going to be prioritizing purchasing art supplies and things like that for their kids to do during this time. For a lot of them, they’re just trying to scrape by.”
After the center’s initial success with art kits on March 20, its development team pushed the idea of distributing 1,000 sets of the supplies. Both Ward and VanHouten-Maldonado were a little dubious that such an ambitious goal was possible, but they agreed to go for it.
The team created an Amazon wish list, where donors could purchase a $5 set of markers or spend as much as they wanted on supplies that were sent directly to SkyART. “So, for a few weeks there,” VanHouten-Maldonado said, “we just had multiple packages showing up everyday and huge piles of art supplies in the studio, which was really cool.”
After having participants stop by the center to obtain the kits on two occasions, the staff realized that such a distribution system wasn’t feasible because of the unsafe lines that formed outside the door.
So, the center began deliveries — typically 50-150 kits a week — directly to families, as well as to schools and organizations like Chicago HOPES for Kids, which provides educational support for children living in shelters.
Among the first recipients was Myles Sanders, 13, a Chatham resident who has been involved with SkyART for about two years. His mother, Kimberly Y. Sanders, describes the center as a “place of peace” for him, because it accepts him for whom he is.
“He is a completely free person there,” she said. “He doesn’t feel weird, which has been the case with kids at school. If he is not playing sports, then he’s got to be knucklehead. He’s a good kid. He’s smart and he loves art.”
The art kits include Crayola markers, crayons, multi-sized sheets of paper and a sketchbook, as well as suggestions as to how to put them to use. “It’s really cool,” said Myles, who takes part in on-line art therapy and a Wednesday Zoom class. “I really like the watercolors best and how you can mix the colors — make them lighter, make them darker.”
SkyART recently surpassed its initial goal of 1,000 art kits, but it has no plans to stop. The center is working to expand distribution westward and to assemble additional packages with different art materials from other suppliers.
A positive side effect of the coronavirus shutdown has been connections that might not have happened otherwise, such as the art center’s partnership with Masks4Chi, which provided 800 cloth face masks for inclusion in the art kits.
“There have just been a significant number of new collaborations that have arisen out of this [sequestration],” VanHouten-Maldonado said, “because everybody wants to make a difference and everybody is really working together, and that has been really cool to see.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.