Art Works Blog

Postcard from Evanston and Chicago

Here I am in Evanston meeting with local civic and arts leaders about the city's Our Town project. Photos by Eric Palmer, City of  Evanston, Illinois.

Last week I was in Chicago for a tour of two great projects: the Our Town grant we made to the City of Evanston, and then an ArtPlace-supported project on Chicago’s South Side by the Rebuild Foundation and my friend Theaster Gates. I was joined for the day by our good friend Carol Coletta, who lives in Chicago and is president of ArtPlace.

Evanston, which is just north of Chicago, is a great example of creative placemaking at its best. What they’re doing is building a performing arts district in the city around a performing arts and community center. (By the way, it was about seven degrees and windy, and we took an outside tour---which reminded me why I love the Midwest and don’t want to live there.) We had a great turnout from the local people who are engaged in the arts there. I was happy to see Terry Scrogum, who is the Executive Director of the Illinois Arts Council, and who I’ve met several times before. Terry is a big supporter of the arts generally, and of creative placemaking in particular. I was also happy to meet Alderman Coleen Burrus; Dennis Marino, the city’s manager of planning and zoning; Carolyn Dellutri, who directs Downtown Evanston; Craig Sklenar, the city’s general planner; and Scarlett Swerdlow, who’s the advocacy and communications director for Arts Alliance Illinois. It was just a whole group of really engaged Evanstonians. It’s great to see what they are doing now, and what they have planned. It’s going to really ratchet up the vitality and vibrancy of downtown Evanston, and the arts are front and center to that effort. It’s just a great, great example of creative placemaking, where they’re really taking old buildings and instead of tearing them down they’re repurposing them for use by arts groups.

That afternoon we went out to the Dorchester neighborhood, which is on the south side of Chicago, somewhat near the University of Chicago. Greg Cameron from the Arts Alliance Illinois’ Board of Directors also joined us. We wanted to see the work that Theaster Gates* and his group, the Rebuild Foundation, are doing in that community. Theaster is an amazing dynamo. He is an engaged citizen, artist, entrepreneur, and holds a post at the University of Chicago as well. You know he’s six people in one!

Theaster wasn't able to be with us, but fortunately he has some great people working with him, and we met Marlease Bushnell,  Mejay Gula, and Kate Hadley-Williams from the Rebuild Foundation there. We took a tour of the Black Cinema House, which is an old building that is being retrofitted into an arts cinema house to showcase African-American cinema. We were really able to get a sense of the whole neighborhood, there is new housing going up in the area, and just lots of revitalization. You know they’re just doing very, very exciting work there, and I can’t wait to back when it’s finished and to celebrate it. Derek Douglas also came over from the University of Chicago; he, of course, used to be at the White House as part of the Domestic Policy Council. He was Melody Barnes’ chief deputy, and one of the big reasons that the arts have been part of domestic policy in this administration. He came by for part of the tour, and it was great to see him in a completely different context and different environment. He’s really engaged in doing outreach with these Chicago neighborhoods on behalf of the University of Chicago.

I’ve been to Chicago for the NEA a few times now, and, to me, it is the birthplace of creative placemaking: what Mayor Richard M. Daley started in 1989 is the beginning of the work that Jason Schupbach (our director of Design) and all of us here at the NEA are engaged with. Mayor Daley took all of those literally falling down old vaudeville houses, rehabbed them at great expense and with great controversy and under a lot of criticism, and created a theater district in downtown Chicago starting in 1989 when he came in. That spearheaded the revitalization of downtown Chicago, and everything that has come since. Now there’s Millennium Park and all the arts festivals, and all that, in a way, started with Mayor Daley’s initial commitment to the arts in 1989. So Chicago is the creative placemaking Mecca. You know, I was saying to people in Evanston, you don’t have to go far to look at an example of what can happen to a neighborhood when the arts move in. Chicago’s where it started and where it continues to happen.

*Visit the Art Works blog in early February for our Art Talk interview with Theaster Gates.

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