Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Part two: South Side Community Arts Center—the art guides us

Posted By on 04.10.12 at 07:18 AM

Ralph Arnold Assemblage
Since its founding in 1940, the South Side Community Arts Center has accumulated more than 400 pieces of art. While the center has had a tumultuous past—from an auspicious beginning to decades of struggle—the collection is a constant, serving as a road map of the SSCAC's history. Skyla Hearn, graduate student at the University of Illinois's School of Library and Information Science, has begun a project that will bring these stories to light. As Hearn says, "the art is guiding us in our revitalization project.”

As you walk into the small room where the SSCAC collection is stored, the history of the center rapidly unfolds. From social realist WPA paintings—like the work of the Chicago-based African-American artist Charles White—to Ralph Arnold’s probing of black American identity through collage work and assemblages, the collection is evidence of 70 years of changing artistic trends and cultural ideologies.

“It seems to me that the strength of the center’s collection is in the 1940s, '60s, '70s," says Rebecca Zorach, a University of Chicago art history professor. "There’s a gap in work from the 1950s. It could be that abstraction was all the rage in the 50s. I think African-American artists weren’t that interested in abstraction because it wasn’t a way to represent people’s actual struggles.” Zorach has been an advocate and adviser at the SSCAC for a number of years.

Like Zorach, Hearn revels in the stories told within the collection. The latter's latest project is titled "Art of a Community Speaks"; it took root when Hearn—along with Zorach and SSCAC’s former executive director Faheem Majeed—decided to move the collection from the basement to the third floor of the building. In the process, Hearn became enamored with the pieces. “It sounds silly, but I really feel like the pieces speak to me," she says. "They are all these little things that create one larger story.” In her research, Hearn has discovered evidence of former auctions, dinner parties, community meetings, and performances held in the space. "The collection is telling me how to tell their story."

In order to create a cohesive narrative, Hearn created a new organizational system that chronicles the collection in both digital and physical archives. “In a sense, creating a new system goes with the revitalization process. We’re giving the art pieces a new life by providing them new access.” Each piece is given a number, and will be part of a larger cataloged system. Hearn's hopes for the archives include positioning SSCAC as a research hub for art-curious Chicago residents.

Although Hearn is at the beginning of her project (she began in November), she is hopeful for the future. “I think this collection will be an important way for people worldwide to get to the know the Center. We're just at the beginning. There are many stories to tell.”

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