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West Town art collective helps artists turn craft into career

Fulton Street Collective houses 20 local artists and hosts several performances each month.

Chris Anderson, the operations manager of the Fulton Street Art Collective, Saturday, January 25, 2020.
Chris Anderson is operations manager of the Fulton Street Collective, Saturday, January 25, 2020.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

On the third floor of an unassuming warehouse in West Town, artists gather to create and share their work. The space is home to the Fulton Street Collective, a local incubator that wants to help artists take their passion and turn it into a paycheck — or better yet, a career.

“The goal is to make money and be a professional; otherwise, it’s a hobby,” said Chris Anderson, the collective’s operations manager.

The space touts red and brown exposed brick walls, usually covered in artwork, and 30-foot ceilings; smiley-face balloons from a previous event still float in the rafters.

Through a steel sliding door at the back of the venue, there are 28 private studios, 20 of which are filled. The walls are lined with artwork from abstract pieces to puppy photographs created by the residents.

Chris Anderson walks through a hallway between artists’ studios, Saturday, January 25th, 2020. |
Chris Anderson walks through a hallway between artists’ studios at Fulton Street Collective.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Fulton was founded in 2002 by singer-songwriters Anna Fermin and Joe Lanasa. The goal was to help local artists grow by embracing a community of equally passionate creators. Today, the collective offers its artists a place to sell and exhibit their work.

“When you have a community like that, it creates a space for people to gather and talk about things that matter — to step out of your daily life and be immersed in art, connect with yourself and reconnect with passions,” said Amber Kouba, an artist in the collective. “Seeing people striving and having a space to share that, you learn more about yourself.”

The collective’s venue hosts a number of music performances each month — primarily jazz and chamber, since they fit best for the space acoustically and aesthetically, Anderson said.

Dance and theater performances have also taken place at the venue, though Anderson said they’re just starting to dip their toes into those realms.

A recurring event is the Jazz Record Art Collective, a series of performances Anderson directs that features different Chicago musicians performing reinterpretations of famous jazz records.

Each show features an artist who paints the musicians as they play. The practice became so popular that now all musical performances there are accompanied by live painting, Anderson said.

Danielle Harth, a full-time school psychologist with Chicago Public Schools and a doctoral student at Chicago State University, painted live at Fulton for the first time Jan. 22.

“Being able to perform and express passion live — having people around support you, whether you’ve known them forever or just met them that night — was beautiful,” Harth said.

That sentiment is what Fulton runs on, especially when promoting a less-experienced group of artists: students.

Helping young people establish themselves in the business is a significant part of Fulton’s focus. There’s very little opportunity for students to learn the craft of performing in Chicago, Anderson said, so he books them when he can.

“You may know how to play your instrument, but that’s far away from performing it in front of a crowd in a club,” he said. “Plus, those are 21 and over, so it’s limited for them to even see their professors perform.”

Juliette Gardiner, an Elmhurst College sophomore studying music business and jazz studies, performs at Fulton almost once a month.

“The first time I played [at Fulton], I was terrified. I’ve seen heavy people play here,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m not that far off from being that heavy player some day.’ I had to get up there and put on a show, just like the pros.”

Fulton’s performing regulars agree the venue helps keep people interested in the arts. Still, getting people to live shows can be a challenge.

“[Venues like Fulton Street Collective] are essential to keeping the music alive, and it’s no small task,” said Joel Adams, band leader of Chicago Yestet, a big band that performs at the collective’s venue every few months. “To bring people out is increasingly difficult — to get people to support live music. [Anderson] works really hard to establish Fulton as a good place to come hear music.”

Chris Anderson installs artwork in the collective’s venue, where music performances and exhibits take place several times a month, Saturday, January 25th, 2020.
Chris Anderson installs artwork in the collective’s venue, where music performances and exhibits take place several times a month.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times

The last time he played a show at Fulton Street Collective, Adams said, between 30 and 40 people raised their hands saying they’d never been to the venue before.

“The event space is always bringing in different types of people for events. You don’t know who will see your work or how it will be seen,” Kouba said.

What matters to Anderson is not who or how — just that the artists’ work is being seen.

“Every day is a new challenge,” Anderson said. “Some artists you have to pry out of their shells with a crowbar and say, ‘Hey, you do amazing work. Let’s try to get your work out there so you can make a living.’”