An unusual building catches my eye as I walk down south Cornell Avenue, near 50th street, in Hyde Park. On its long side, five garage doors open to reveal a massive gallery. Curiosity draws me in.“What do you think about the exhibition?” asks a man with a friendly face, who I later learn is Hilesh Patel, deputy director of the Hyde Park Art Center.
“I want everyone to feel welcome,” Patel tells me. “I try to tell everyone, programmatically and organizationally, that they belong here.”
Later, I call him to learn more about recent initiatives at the Art Center, which revolve around a new five-year strategic plan. “We started the process last fall,” he says. “It began with a listening tour. We went out and talked to our teaching artists, teams, interns, funders, donors… anyone who has any relationship with the Art Center.”
Finding those people was easy. The center is a community hub and it offers a space and programming that engage artists and community members through art-related discussions, art education, exhibitions, residencies and more.
“What became clear after the listening tour was that we did not need to do any new initiatives—there was a lot that we were doing that was good,” Patel says. “What we needed to do was amplify what we were doing and make it louder. Most importantly was this idea of removing any barriers, including possibly tuition, to give people greater access to school. All of this began to fall under the umbrella of what came to be known as ‘Creative Citizenship’—this idea of thinking about what it means to look at what we’re doing, and to see ourselves as a historical yet fluid entity that needs to change. There’s a lot of things that are happening in our exhibitions and in our studios that are characteristic qualities of citizenship, good tension, pushback and collaboration. All of those things are good, but we need to start calling them out. The strategic plan is an amplification of that process.”
Multileveled and expansive, the Art Center’s space offers a playground through which Patel and his team, working under the direction of executive director Kate Lorenz, can provide a platform to push barriers and encourage artists to take risks. “Kate has a really great concept as to how to keep the organization moving forward,” Patel says. “It’s interesting, to lead an organization you have to be conservative in many ways, and at the same time you have to be experimental. So, how do you do both at the same time? I think she’s navigated that really, really well.”
He continues on, singing the praises of their staff and emphasizing that it is their passion that will make the plan achievable. “I don’t think the issue is getting them to believe in or subscribe to the strategic plan. I think the challenge is going to be getting everyone to slow down a bit because we’re dreaming so big.” (Maria Girgenti)
The Hyde Park Art Center is located at 5020 South Cornell. The “Creative Citizenship” strategic plan launches in September 2016.