THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Jeffreen Hayes
"In Chicago, one can work experimentally and find the space to do it. Chicago is affordable, so it allows artists to have space."
—Meg Duguid, artist, curator and archivist
Over the past fifteen years, and quite rapidly in the past five, Black artists, artists of color and women artists have become synonymous with Chicago. Say the names Richard Hunt, Kerry James Marshall, Dawoud Bey, Jessica Stockholder, Edra Soto, Theaster Gates, and Amanda Williams outside of the city, and individuals usually respond with amazement that Chicago has artists of high caliber. Then, the follow up question is, “What is it about Chicago that has kept some of the most internationally-renowned artists in the city?”
One the reasons is what artist, curator and archivist Meg Duguid stated in the opening quotation. Her sentiment is shared by many in our city. Chicago is a place where artists have space to do the work they need to do. Working experimentally, testing ideas and honing their craft, artists in Chicago can grow and succeed without the pressures of other international art centers. Certainly, an artistic community that values experimentation and gives artists the leeway to take risks makes for a ripe environment for different ways of working for all artists, and especially artists of color.
Though Chicago does not have the vast ecosystem of visual art spaces that New York or Los Angeles enjoy, there is already a strong system of non-profits, art centers and galleries supporting Chicago artists. The visibility of Black artists, artists of color and women in the art world is a result of these artists having access to the spaces that have developed and pivoted in response to the evolving needs of the city’s artistic community.
Through these organizations, artists such as Nick Cave, William Estrada, Brendan Fernandes and Arnold Kemp receive research support, exhibition opportunities and grants for projects that might not receive support from other funding sources. Gems in the community are alternative and artist-run spaces like the Franklin, Roots & Culture, Threewalls and Produce Model, where many artists receive their first exhibition or grant. Alternative spaces, art centers and galleries help to buoy and often are the foundation of the ecosystem of art museums in Chicago.
What goes unnoticed is the curatorial heft associated with these spaces, which is equally as important as the physical space they provide and the experimental ethos they embody. Chicago-based curators are the unsung heroes behind some of the artists defining the 2000s, particularly those from overlooked communities.
When asked about what makes Chicago a place for marginalized artists, curator Neysa Page-Lieberman says, “Chicagoans support far more than they compete with each other. For those of us dedicated to increasing visibility for marginalized artists and practices, we support each other with fierce dedication. Your victory as a curator is also mine. Your raised profile raises us all.” In addition to the curatorial victory, which is successfully organizing an exhibition, helping to increase an artist’s visibility and making a space for artistic development accessible, the victory of Chicago’s artists’ rise in the art world is our victory.
Candida Alvarez, Estoy Bien, 2017. Latex ink and acrylic on pva mesh. Photo courtesy of Patrick Pyszka.
The rise of Chicago’s artists in the middle of the 2000s forged a path for women artists of color to be seen in ways that did not necessarily exist in the past. We are in a moment of revisiting the canon and the ways in which art institutions and organizations have been and are culpable for exclusionary practices. While Chicago is a place where artists can experiment freely and live affordably, it has its challenges with accessibility and inclusion.
What is exciting about this time in Chicago is the growing presence of women artists of color on the international stage. Three such artists who have been consistently working in Chicago—Candida Alvarez, Edra Soto, and Amanda Williams—share their thoughts about Chicago.
Painter Candida Alvarez, known for her colorful and vibrant abstract paintings that serve as a call-and-response for her memories, has lived in Chicago for twenty years and has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for the same amount of time. As a working artist and art educator, Alvarez has kept up a steady studio practice. While in the city, she created SubCity Projects, a two-year project (2004–5 and 2009–10) started in an elevator.
Of the artist-run project, Alvarez says, “I founded SubCity Projects in Chicago’s Fine Arts Building as an alternative exhibition site inside a fixed elevator carriage… then I moved it inside my studio. The key element was the glass door and windows that allowed viewers to peep inside and see the artist interventions.” Chicago has a history of artist-run spaces that add to the vibrancy for overlooked artists. As Duguid shares, “These projects are really seen as a hybrid practice where [artists’] interests and curiosities are full-filled in more ways than just the creation of work.”
The last five years have seen Alvarez’s visibility increase with a solo exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center, a survey of her career at the Chicago Cultural Center, and public art work on the Chicago’s Riverwalk and a collaboration with fashion house Comme des Garçons. Of her time in Chicago, Alvarez expressed excitement about her survey, saying, “The highlight of my 20 years of living in Chicago was knowing that my 40-year survey of paintings entitled ‘Candida Alvarez: Here,’ curated by Terry R. Myers at the Chicago Cultural Center was attended by 40,165 people!”
Edra Soto, Graft, 2010. Installation for “Out of Easy Reach” curated by Allison Glenn at the DePaul Art Museum. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Edra Soto, an interdisciplinary artist, also has a hybrid artistic practice that includes artmaking, curating, and co-directing an artist-run space, The Franklin. Her work engages with art and design, incorporating the built environment and cultural development within neighborhoods. When thinking about what makes Chicago a place for artists, she shared, “The Chicago art graduate student overflow has fostered the importance of the artist-run culture for many years. This is the culture that artists with rigorous and non-conforming practices tend to subscribe to and adopt as an idyllic community model.”
With a growing presence in the art world, Soto has recently completed national residencies at the Headlands Center for the Arts, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, and Art Omi. In addition to a steady exhibition history at such venues as the Arts Club of Chicago, Pérez Art Museum Miami, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Soto has curated a number of exhibitions. For her, Chicago has been an important place to develop because she attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and, like many graduates, stayed after completing her studies. She explains that after graduate school and through her relationship with “the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and soon after with the artist-run community,” she “found [her]self in fertile ground.” She shares, “I received some validation and became part of several art communities.”
Living and working in Chicago is the basis for Amanda Williams’ work. An artist trained as an architect, Williams, too, has experienced a growing visibility in the art world. Her watershed moment came through her “Color(ed) Theory Series,” in which Williams examined the social and cultural constructions of colors as they relate to the Black experience by painting abandoned structures in urban areas.
Her international presence became solidified upon her selection to represent the United States in the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale with a Chicago-based artist, Andres L. Hernandez, in collaboration with another Chicago-based artist, Shani Crowe. Collaboration is an under-valued characteristic of Chicago artists’ visibility when thinking about this city and the rise of marginalized artists. As Page-Lieberman states, “When we collaborate beyond our city borders, we see our communities’ thirst for what we do and our potential for impact.”
Williams reinforces the notion that Chicago’s art ecosystem provides some structure to the art community, saying, “The idea that you approach your craft with a certain integrity and commitment permeates the air. There’s no celebrity. That ethos is undergirded with an infrastructure of arts centers, non-profit arts institutions and artist-led spaces that incubate making/creating.” She continues, “An unheralded ingredient in Chicago’s secret sauce is the quiet work of collectors, patrons and city agencies working to expand ways to sustain artists.”
Amanda Williams, Currency Exchange, Safe Passage, from
“Color(ed) Theory Suite,” 2014–16. Photo courtesy of the artist.
This last part is crucial to the ecosystem. In addition to the collectors, patrons and the city agencies, the philanthropic community plays an important role in the development of our arts community. Chicago’s foundations and philanthropists understand that the vibrancy of our arts community and the elevation of artists on the international stage are important. While they do not typically provide direct support to artists, they do give to many of the non-profit art spaces, museums and arts centers through grants. This allows these organizations and institutions to do the work of building platforms for our artists.
Chicago’s art ecosystem provides a number of ways to help sustain artists, particularly artists who have been traditionally overlooked by the art world. When we look at artists and begin to ask how we are in this moment of visibility, we must look at the world that surrounds them. Artists, arts organizations, curators, patrons, and philanthropy depend on each other. Without one, the others cannot truly be sustained. With the visibility and acceptance of Black artists, artists of color and women in the art world, there is a system that is making it possible for them to do the work that they do, whether through participation in a community, risk taking, failure or collaboration. The art world is not only watching how Chicago fosters contemporary artists but also beginning to make room for them. Kudos to Chicago!
Jeffreen M. Hayes, Ph.D., is a curator and executive director of Threewalls, a Chicago non-profit organization dedicated to contemporary art practice and discussion.
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