Sender: H-Net/H-Urban Seminar on History of Community Organizing &


Subject: Re: PAPER: "How Do the Arts Build Communities?"


Date: Thu, 4 Apr 1996 08:32:39 CST

Posted by Wendy Plotkin <U13972@uicvm.uic.edu>

Tom Tresser's paper on community-based arts programs is a contemporary study of a phenomenon that is not new. An article by Anna M. Tyler in the 1994 _International Review of African American Arts_ , (11:4, 1994, 31-37) describes the creation of the community arts centers under the U.S. federal government's (New Deal) Works Progress Administration, and the survival of only one of them in an African American neighborhood of Chicago. As described in an abstract of the article:

Chicago's South Side Community Art Center is the sole survivor of 110 community art centers created by the Works Progress Administration. Located in Bronzeville, the center was established in 1940 with government aid and funds raised by local residents through a variety of schemes. The center's interior was created by leading figures of the New Bauhaus School of Design, which melded European and American philosophies of design. The center's decline began in the early 1950s during the "Red Scare," when the executive board decided to ban artists and their associates from the center. Despite its problems, the center continues to remain true to its mission by staging general group shows and special exhibitions.

Source: Illinois Bibliographic Information Service, Wilson


It is not obvious from the article whether the economic development benefits of the community arts center were a significant consideration in its creation or in its subsequent history.

The chilling effect of intense anti-Communism on the community center is reminiscent of another incident in Los Angeles around the same time. In NIGHTMARE IN RED (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1988), Richard Fried describes the intrusion of anti-Communism into Los Angeles local affairs. In 1948 the city of Los Angeles, following the example of Los Angeles County, required avowals from all city employees that they did not belong to subversive groups.

In 1951, charges of Communist influence threatened the continuance of a modern art exhibit in the city of Los Angeles. Initially sponsored by the Los Angeles City Council, the exhibit was opposed by more traditional artists, who questioned the content of the exhibit as well as the affiliations of the artists. Several of the city councilors charged "that `ultramodern artists are unconsciously used as tools of the Kremlin' and that some abstract paintings might actually reveal secrets of U.S. defense installations." Eventually, the city council decided that "modern art was not subsersive." (32)

It would be interesting to explore this incident in more detail, and see if community leaders and/or artists were involved, and, if so, on which side they aligned themselves.

Wendy Plotkin



Date: Tue, 9 Apr 1996 14:25:32 CDT

Posted by Wendy Plotkin <u13972@uicvm.uic.edu>

As an earlier comment on Tom Tresser's paper, "How Do the Arts Build Communities?" (available from the COMM-ORG WWW site or by sending e-mail to listserv@uicvm.uic.edu with the message GET NEIGHBOR ARTS), I mentioned an article about the one remaining 1930's Works Progress Administration (WPA) community arts center, in Chicago's African-American community. The article is:

Anna M. Tyler, "Planting and Maintaining a 'Perennial Garden,' Chicago's South Side Community Art Center" in INTERNATIONAL REVIEW OF AFRICAN AMERICAN ART (11:4), 1994.

I've abstracted the article in more detail below. I should include the scholarly caveat that unlike some articles in the INTERNATIONAL REVIEW OF AFRICAN AMERICAN ART, published at Hampton University in Virginia, it includes no sources. I've called the South Shore Community Arts Center about contacting the author for any published sources and to obtain up-to-date information on the Center in case you'd like to visit it on a trip to Chicago -- and will share this information when available.

Should any of the Chicagoans or artists on the list be familiar with this or the history of other WPA community art centers, I'd appreciate any additional information.

One of the pleasant surprises in abstracting this article was to discover the attractive INTERNATIONAL REVIEW OF AFRICAN AMERICAN ART, with lovely, high-quality graphics and interesting commentary. It is published 4 times a year by Hampton University Museum, Hampton University, Hampton, VA 23668, at a 1994 cost of $36 annually and $64.00 for two years ($8 additional for foreign subscribers). The 1994 phone number given is 804-727-5308.



Chicago's South Side Community Art Center was located in Bronzeville, an economically diverse African-American neighborhood of Chicago with some representation of white ethnic residents in the 1930s. Like many neighborhoods in Chicago, Bronzeville had undergone racial change, by 1910 having changed from a white well-to-do neighborhood of many mansions to a community of African-Americans living in kitchenette apartments and other dense accommodations drawing on the converted mansions as the basis for the housing stock.

Tyler writes

The WPA arts and local history programs were based in a strategy of developing culture as part of efforts to help restore the nation's economy. Democratizing the benefits of the arts by encouraging the participation of all citizens was the rationale for WPA-affiliated arts centers. (31)

Tyler observes that although the federal government stimulated the establishment of the South Side Center, it was the efforts of the community that brought these efforts to fruition. The federal government provided the funds for the remodeling of the center's building and administrative funds for staff and faculty. The community had to pay for the lease and purchase of the building, for utilities, and for art supplies. At the time of Depression, the author notes, this was especially difficult for poor communities.

A South Side businessman, Golden B. Darby, oversaw the fund-raising operation, establishing a committee to obtain the required capital and to find an acceptable location. The first meeting of the committee was held on October 25, 1938. Other organizations and businesses were involved in its establishment: the meeting was held at the Urban League's branch office. [1] In attendance were the state director and an official of the Illinois's Federal Art Project, the latter also an art dealer who invited black artists to exhibit in his North Michigan Avenue gallery in downtown Chicago.

Also in attendance were members of the Arts Craft Guild, which had been organized in 1932 and "was the only active group of African American visual artists in the community." (31) The Guild's membership included Margaret Taylor, Eldzier Cortor, Bernard Goss, Charles White, William Carter, Joseph Kersey, and Archibald Motley, Jr.(on whom the Chicago Historical Society held a fine exhibit a couple of years ago).

Fundraising for the effort involved three years of activity, including "theater performances, card parties, a 'Mile of Dimes' street-corner campaign, lectures and exhibitions held in churches, community centers, schools and clubhouses." (35)

The most successful event was the Artists' and Models' Ball held on October 23, 1939 at the Savoy Ballroom. This single event raised the funds to acquire the building for the future Center. Other balls attracted arts patrons from acoss the country. As it turns out, this was the first of an annual set of balls which continue to the present day as a major source of funding for the Center, a "black tie event with corporate sponsorship." (35)

Proposals for the design of the community center were received from Hin Bredendieck and Nathan Lerner, "two leading figures from the New Bauhaus School of Design established in Chicago in 1937." (35) The interior of the center fused European and American design principles, and provides today one of the few remaining remnants of this style, according to the author. Furniture for the building was constructed by WPA craftsmen.

The South Side Community Art Center opened in December, 1940, with a show of well-known local painters and sculptors: Henry Avery, William Carter, Charles White, Archibald Motley, Jr., Joseph Kersey, Margaret and Bernard Goss, William McBride, among others. Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated it in May, 1941 in a ceremony that was broadcast nationally via the Columbia Broadcasting Radio System network. Celebrities attending included actress Ethel Waters and Howard University professor (and Harlem Renaissance leader) Alain Locke. A Cleveland choir provided the music via a radio link-up.

Federal support for the Center shrunk as the national involved itself in World War II, and by 1943 all federal support had ceased. Although this resulted in the loss of some administrative staff, the center continued to offer programs, funded by well-to-do supporters and events such as the annual ball. European trained, African-American artist Rex Goreleigh took over as administrative director in 1944.

The Center held classes in drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography and crafts. It went beyond the visual arts and offered literary and performing arts programs, as well. Its writers' forum involved Willard Motley, Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks at various times, and the Nat "King" Cole trio played at the center on occasional Saturday nights.

Photographer and film director Gordon Parks, one of the Center's participants, was among several who left Chicago in the 1940s to join the military or seek their fortunes in other cities.

As noted in the earlier abstract of the article, McCarthyism had a major impact on the Center in the early 1950s, as all artists and their associates were banned from the center. The dismissed artists protested their firing to no avail, set up shop across the street, or sought opportunities elsewhere to pursue artistic careers.

By the late 1950s, the Center was "barely intact." Artists again joined, and shows were held, "the only place in Chicago were minority artists could regularly exhibit." (36) By the early 1960s, the efforts of Sylvester Britton and Ramon Price, whose work had been nurtured by the Center when they were youngsters, lead to the revitalization of the Center, aided by the revival of the Artists' and Models' Ball.

Three women were especially responsible for the revival of the Center: Wilhelmina Blanks, Fern Gayden and Grace Thompson. They took over many of the bills of the center, donating money of their own. They sought support from the Johnson Publishing Company, a major Chicago African-American media firm, and added an executive of the company, Herbert Nipson, as board chair. Community artists were asked to submit works to an auction that became an important source of funds for the Center, as well as a means of advertising the works to the Chicago arts community.

Interestingly, in the early 1980s, a debate ensued between some board members, who wished to move from the neighborhood that was now in decline, and members of the community. As a result of the reaction of the community against relocation, the center stayed where it had been.

Over the years, the Center has acquired an impressive collection of the works of African-American artists, the most valuable being those from the WPA era such as Archibald Motley, Jr. and Marian Perkins. Many of these artists trained at the School of the Chicago Art Institute, and they incorporated a variety of styles in their works, including European, Asian, Mexican muralists, while adding their own Chicago and midwestern perspective.

[1]The standard work on the Chicago Urban League is _History of the Chicago Urban League_ <by> Arvarh E. Strickland. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1966, 286 p.

If it's been updated, I'd be interested of hearing of more recent works.

Wendy Plotkin