Arts non-profit Threewalls was founded in 2003 to support and spotlight the Chicago arts community. The mission of Threewalls is simple yet powerful: to raise awareness about the local art community while providing a stage for emerging artists to flourish, uplifting multiple communities in the Windy City.
Threewalls announced a program expansion in October 2019, thanks to a $1.2 million award from the Surdna Foundation. The Surdna Foundation shares a similar mission, to break down barriers to opportunity in cities in order to strengthen local economies and support cultural initiatives. With the award, Threewalls will grant $300,000 for three years to Chicago-based ALAANA (individuals who identify as African, Latinx, Asian, Arab or Native American) artists for their RaD Lab+Outside the Walls Fellowship. The grants will support twelve creative professionals who will receive $25,000 each to focus on community-centric endeavors that tackle racial injustice. The RaD+Outside the Walls program allows recipients to spend a year researching, developing and testing an idea.
Newcity sat down with Jeffreen Hayes, who has been executive director of Threewalls since 2015. Hayes has long been an advocate for accessibility and racial inclusion.
What does the Surdna Foundation award mean for Threewalls and ALAANA-identifying artists in Chicago?
The partnership with Surdna Foundation and more specifically the leadership team of Thriving Cultures, is a testament to recognizing the value of intentionally centering ALAANA artists and creatives in our programming and community. Receiving the award allows us to continue making space to holistically support artists—from mentoring to problem-solving to listening, these are actions that we include in our collaborations with artists. Surdna and the Thriving Cultures team understands that in order to create a world anew, partnering with individuals with shared and practiced values is the way forward. With their support, we no longer have to prove to foundations and donors that the way we work and the centering of ALAANA is valuable. We no longer have to ask for permission to exist. ALAANA artists do not need to look for validation. They matter as humans and artists. Period.
The Surdna Foundation characterizes itself as promoting sustainability and a healthy environment in communities. How will this award contribute to the Chicago artistic community?
One of the most wonderful aspects of the partnership is the keen understanding of artists as humans, humans living in communities and affected by issues that affect many of us: student loans and credit-card debt, healthcare and childcare expenses, affordable housing and living wages. What they encourage and what we have always practiced is making sure artists receive a stipend or fee for themselves. The fellowship award will have the financial realities as line items [in] the project budget. It begins to address the racial wealth gap and takes it a step further with under-recognized ALAANA artists by making room for the economic reality of artistic practice. While it will not solve it, it does begin to shift the way foundations and arts/community organizations consider how to truly support artists.
Often grants are distributed to qualified individuals but Threewalls takes that one step further by offering developmental assistance. Can you discuss these resources?
We are thrilled to be able to expand our mentorship through the fellowship to create touch points for the fellows to learn from each other through regular fellowship gatherings. The mentoring begins at the application phase, assisting applicants with articulating their research and radical idea to the public, helping them think through the quarterly engagements where they present and collaborate with Chicago residents in their neighborhood, and talking through different ways to present their research idea as an installation or exhibition. Once they are a fellow, we will continue to support them around their engagements (logistics, connecting with community representatives and organizations, onsite support), being a thought partner during the research phase, and conducting regular studio visits.
Additionally, we are offering what I will call creative life-hack sessions with a therapist, financial planning support, disability and access education and digital coaching. These are in response to the artist community expressing their needs and how we, as an organization, can further our support of them. What excites me about this offering is that we are able to offer these at no cost to the fellows.
What is the RaD Lab+Outside the Walls fellowship?
The RaD Lab+Outside the Walls Fellowship supports ALAANA (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American) artists and creatives who use radical imagination to practice a racially just society. All of the fellows will demonstrate alternative ways toward racial equity through radical imagination and social justice. All projects take place in the fellow’s neighborhood or community area.
The program is divided into two parts: “RaD Lab” (research and development) and “Outside the Walls.” During the RaD Lab year, the fellows spend a year researching, developing and testing their project for Outside the Walls in their neighborhood or community area. Over this time, each awardee will present their idea to their communities/neighbors, stakeholders and the interested public on a quarterly basis through public engagements. The engagements are community-focused with opportunities for the artists to invite their neighbors into the process of moving toward addressing the issue they are researching.
Outside the Walls is our exhibition model that presents exhibitions and installations in Chicago neighborhoods developed through RaD Lab. The art or research form will be installed in spaces that do not typically host art exhibitions and are easily accessible to the public. Outside the Walls features programming led by artists and their neighbors in support of the exhibitions and the engagement cultivated during RaD Lab.
With both parts, Threewalls assists with the public engagements in terms of brainstorming about different ways to present to the public, logistics (securing space, communicating with various groups) and documentation. Threewalls collaborates with the fellows throughout the process and conducts quarterly check-ins to help problem solve and to assure that they are making progress on their project.
What does Threewalls have in store for 2020?
This year is another transformative one for us at Threewalls and our community. Our programming will continue to root and grow to respond to and reflect the lived experiences of artists and creatives in Chicago, specifically black artists and artists of color. In-Session, our salon series, will more intentionally center not only conversation but also the significance of the reading list, making it a usable resource outside of being a list of cultural texts. RaD Lab+Outside the Walls Fellowship expands to twelve fellows in twelve different neighborhoods and community areas in the city, which is exciting. We will also have a public celebration of the Fellows—artists and creatives who are reimagining a racially just world through the lens of art and culture. Lastly, we are making intentional space for intersectional disability justice with the arrival of Barak adé Soleil, the new director of programs. Accessibility in all ways is an important value of Threewalls, and with Barak’s leadership, we will make progress in this overlooked area in the arts and racial justice.
Beyond 2020, how do you think the grant will play into Threewalls’ participation in the Chicago art community?
I believe that the work we are doing together opens up different kinds of collaboration in Chicago, offers a pathway for other arts organizations and artists in other disciplines to reimagine how their existence and art, respectively, can have a deeper impact not only in the art community but also Chicago. Truly investing in artists and their radical ideas will change the future landscape in terms of what and how we define art and the ways in which it can address systemic issues that also affect artists. I also believe that as we continue to work in an alternative model in the Chicago art community, that in the future it will simply become the norm. (Caira Moreira-Brown)
Potential candidates will be auditioned through an open call format through February 29.