By Jason Foumberg
On an afternoon this past March, First Ward alderman Proco “Joe” Moreno sat to have his portrait painted by artist Layne Jackson, which was hung in the exhibition “50 Aldermen/50 Artists” at Johalla Projects in Wicker Park. The exhibition began as a fun experiment, and then by necessity became a huge organizational effort, and somehow over 800 people attended the opening as it received major media coverage. Now, several months later, the show’s legs are getting some exercise. It turns out that Alderman Moreno was a good choice for the live portrait-painting session. The youngest-serving alderman of a ward that includes Wicker Park, and appointed by Mayor Daley to his seat, Moreno is emerging as a supporter of local art and culture.
The portrait session initiated a unique relationship between Alderman Moreno and Johalla Projects proprietor Anna Cerniglia. “How do I keep you in Wicker Park?” the alderman asked Cerniglia. The neighborhood has a dense history as a burgeoning arts district in Chicago, but recently the area has been inhospitable to its sustained existence. Around the Coyote vacated the Flat Iron Arts Building in an effort to save itself, and several art galleries were sniffed out by the city’s permit hunters. “Everybody was running from Wicker Park,” says Cerniglia, even as she established her gallery on the second floor above Earwax Cafe.
Since the alderman exhibition, Moreno has tapped Cerniglia to help promote some new art projects in Wicker Park. Cerniglia recalls that she was excited by the prospect of working with an alderman, but was skeptical that his enthusiasm might diminish among the din of the upcoming elections. She has yet to be disappointed. Moreno and Cerniglia meet several times a month to discuss their collaborative projects. “He’s still fighting” for the arts, Cerniglia says.
So far Cerniglia and Moreno have collaborated to get a mural painted over a dirty and tagged wall on the Walgreens building, but their most ambitious project is the adoption of the CTA’s Damen Blue Line station. When art goes into a CTA station it is usually permanent, like a tile mosaic or a massive sculpture. Cerniglia wants to create a schedule of rotating artist projects for the station, which means each show has to be approved by a CTA safety committee. Paintings and photos are easy to get approved, but Cerniglia is thinking bigger. She hopes to have the artist collective White Light produce a light-and-sound installation in the station, with illumination rising from beneath the wood plank floors.
The adoption of a CTA station, good for two years, involves a $3,000 fee and a commitment to clean the station. The fledgling Johalla Projects cannot pay this fee, so alderman Moreno is helping to fundraise. He’s asking private interests who want to donate to his election campaign to divert some of their donations to these art initiatives. Moreno also thinks it’s important for the artists he works with to get paid. The painters of the community murals will receive payment for their creative work.
“People don’t know how important their alderman is,” says Cerniglia, a recent lesson for her. She’s also collaborating with 35th Ward alderman Rey Colon to get some murals painted in Logan Square. She says that most people don’t realize that the city contracts the same few organizations to have murals painted. The approvals are already in place but that contributes to a homogenized look. “It’s rare to have an alderman like Moreno,” says Cerniglia. He’s “open to my ideas for the neighborhood.”
The collaboration with alderman Moreno is a change of focus for Cerniglia. In the past she’s helped to produce pop-up galleries and worked for South Union Arts and All Rise Gallery. These were mostly semi-underground and temporary ventures. Although the one year-old Johalla Projects resembles an apartment gallery, with a kitchen smack in the middle of the show space, working with Moreno has helped her legitimize the gallery as a business. It is zoned properly, registered as a for-profit business, and has sponsorships. For the CTA adoption project, Johalla’s liability is huge—it is responsible for any accident that the art installations might cause, so Moreno has guided Cerniglia through the process of making sure Johalla can take on the extra insurance policies.
As Moreno helps Cerniglia get her vision for the CTA station realized, Cerniglia helps Moreno campaign, collecting signatures and even rallying for him at events. Supporting each other’s efforts is how both will succeed. Cerniglia hopes the CTA adoption will be in place by the beginning of 2011, and Moreno hopes he will be elected into office by the citizens and artists of Wicker Park in February.