The holes in the walls in the exhibit spaces at the South Side Community Art Center tells the story of a venue that continues to withstand the test of time — and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those holes are the remnants of the work of artists, musicians, muralists, sculptors, painters and photographers, among others, over an 80-year span.
The Bronzeville-based venue, founded in 1941 by legendary educator and historian Dr. Margaret Burroughs, Eldzier Cortor, Charles White, Bernard Goss, William Carter, Archibald Motley and Joseph Kersey, is a longtime space for Black creatives to showcase their work when other spaces overtly and covertly told them no.
This year, pandemic and ongoing structural repairs be damned, the SSCAC aims to kickoff its 80th anniversary on Thursday with a virtual event beginning at 6:30 p.m.
“We are one of 100-plus, WPA-founded [Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project] arts institutions. We, however, are the only remaining WPA institution that is still operating in its original location,” said Monique Brinkman-Hill, the SSCAC’s executive director. “The 1940s and 1950s, you think about that period of time — very segregated — particularly around the country and especially here in Chicago. When you think about the [SSCAC], it’s rife with history. ... And we have made sure that we are continuing to elevate this institution.”
The SSCAC, which is currently open by appointment-only, continues to be the home for generations of Black creatives such as singer Nat King Cole (the piano he played at the SSCAC sits in one’s of the exhibit spaces), photographer Gordon Parks had a darkroom in the SSCAC’s basement, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gwendolyn Brooks.
Various exhibits and community outreach over the decades has garnered the SSCAC a lofty status in the annals of Chicago Black history. Local urban historian Shermann Thomas added the SSCAC to his sold-out Juneteenth tour highlighting Bronzeville cultural institutions.
Brinkman-Hill, who took over the SSCAC in 2019 just months before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down, says the restoration andrebuilding has been a long process.
“When you look at when people come here, I think it’s always important when they look at the walls because you see these panels, you’re thinking maybe we should get some new panels. But if you run your hand [over them], every panel is a place where a piece of art has gone,” said Brinkman-Hill. “That’s part of our story. There’s a sense of energy and synergy when you think about this space, and that [muralist] Charles White might have hung his pieces in one of these holes. [Artist] Kerry James Marshall was here. He and his wife got married at the center. There’s just so much history here.”
South Shore-based muralist Dorian Sylvain, who began to hang out at the SSCAC as an art student in the 1980s, says its greatest strength is in its flexibility in terms of meeting the needs of the artists over time.
“As a young artist, there really weren’t many places to go, especially for young Black artists on the South Side,” said Sylvain. “And the South Side Community Art Center was one of those early places that became one of my creative homes of sorts. I would say, fundamentally, the value of the SSCAC for me as a young artist was being able to locally connect with other artists, and not only other young artists, but all three tiers — young, up-and-coming, to masters.
“The [SSCAC] is such a melting pot, and it also represents the full plethora of artistic disciplines that were going on. Sometimes, it’d be a rehearsal space; it would be a studio. So it’s been flexible throughout all these decades to what the needs of the artists are. I think its flexibility has been part of its charm.”
Brinkman-Hill and the rest of the SSCAC staff aim to add structural upgrades in order to keep their hallowed halls existing for another 80 years and beyond.
“We have a state grant that will probably be able to launch in 2022, and we’re going to look at doing a lot of projects that are overdue,” said Brinkman-Hill. “One of them is adding an elevator in order to add accessibility to the building. One of the things that needs to be done is to restore the windows. As a historic building, we can’t, in many cases, rip out the windows. We can’t replace them; we have to restore them.”
That ongoing restoration over time allows for artists such as Minneapolis native Faheem Majeed to come to Chicago, and spend most of his time at the SSCAC’s top floor working on his art and soaking up knowledge from established artists. He says that opportunity is why the institution continues to shine.
“I didn’t really have any real networks when I came to Chicago,” said Majeed, who worked his way up the ranks at the SSCAC from volunteer to curator and executive director (2005-2011). “So many artists have come through there, and found a home. It’s a home, and a temple that needs to be honored and propped up and acknowledged for all of its contributions over these past 80 years.
“Black institutions don’t have the luxury of just being a museum. Our Black spaces, especially, had to be all things. So that means they not only had to have a collection, it had to be able to create a space for young people to learn art, for emerging artists to show their art, to have a space to meet.”