Months of protests following the latest wave of police murders and major disruptions due to the pandemic have led to renewed calls for structural change in the art world. Institutions large and small are asked for greater transparency, for real equity. Teen groups are asking museums to divest from relationships with police. Students are demanding schools hire more BIPOC faculty to teach courses that aren’t white-centric. In Chicago, many cultural workers, collectives and organizations already operate in radically equitable ways. In their own words, folks from Arts of Life, Temporary Services, the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project and Black Futures talk about the ways they are building the world they want to see. These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Founded in 2000, Arts of Life is a vibrant creative community for working artists with disabilities. Each artist, working across two locations, has their own studio space, receives a monthly stipend and other support for their practice, and has an equal say in decision-making. Art director Vincent Uribe talks about the nonprofit’s democratic, person-centered approach.
While I was in my second year at SAIC, a live-work space fell under my control and I started LVL3, an artist-run gallery in Wicker Park. The mission is to expand our community by incorporating Chicago-based artists with artists from around the country. A friend of mine knew I was looking for a job after I graduated and was like, “I just came across this post, Arts of Life.” It was a mile-and-a-half from LVL3 and I was like, “How have I never heard about this organization?”
I started working at Arts of Life as their arts coordinator, helping manage their Chicago studio artists’ work: archiving, facilitating sales, getting exhibitions and everything in between.
How we’re set up: the front half we have a gallery space that’s about 500 square feet. Behind that, there’s a huge, open studio space where we support around thirty artists who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. The program is designed to support their professional development as working artists.
My passion and interest came from wanting people to know that Arts of Life was here. I was trying to get our Chicago studio artists’ work out into the community as much as possible.
We developed a partnership program where I would match [outside] artists that wanted to get involved with an artist from our studio and they would work collaboratively and mentor each other. It was being able to work with another person and develop a relationship, having a productive experience where they both would benefit.
My role now, as art director, is to push our exhibition programming and our public-facing interactions. When I started, both of our studios had a gallery space, but there was no official gallery programming. That was a big goal of mine because I wanted to invite the public in more regularly. I want the studio artist’s work to be recognized as contemporary artwork and not have somebody look at it and like it because it’s made by somebody who has a disability. The work stands on its own. We relaunched both galleries a couple years ago and branded them as Circle Contemporary.
We work on this collective decision-making model. All the artists have a say in everything that goes on. That’s one of the things that makes Arts of Life maybe more unique than other arts programs for people with disabilities. The autonomy for the studio artists is really present. Illinois is unfortunately consistently ranked in the bottom five in the country for people with disabilities, with funding. Arts of Life is a progressive studio, but we’re a black sheep in the larger sector.
For us, having that collective decision-making is really valuable. Everyone is able to share their opinion and you don’t have to be afraid of expressing a concern or voicing something, because it’s going to be taken productively. That can definitely translate in the art world as a whole, anything from applying to an art fair or showing in an exhibition or going to an opening and not feeling like you belong there. Transparency is valuable.
Brett Bloom and Marc Fischer have operated Temporary Services since 1998. The project has taken many shapes—from a sidewalk exhibition of sandwich boards to a book on prisoner’s inventions to an autonomous reading room. At the center of all their work is their desire to make art accessible, and to work sustainably and on their own terms, outside of capitalist structures of competition, trends or marketability.
Brett Bloom: There was a period of time where we experienced a fall-out of the culture wars that conservatives won in a big way. The National Endowment for the Arts was radically defunded. Part of this defunding was taking away money from a network of independent non-commercial experimental spaces that were this incredible force of democratizing the arts in our country. It collapsed right when we came out of grad school.
We didn’t want to make commercial art. We didn’t want to participate in a market system. We didn’t want to make luxury goods. We wanted to make culture and try out ideas. So we organized this scrappy space together just north of Logan Square on Milwaukee Avenue. Just to try things out and experiment with what the space could be and how we could engage the community. We had the space for a year and then decided we wanted to work a lot more public, without permission.
Marc Fischer: Brett started this and came up with the name, thinking about art as a service to others. This discussion was happening around some other artists’ work, like Andrea Fraser, just thinking about a generosity-based practice.
BB: Chicago is notorious for… the political structure it is not very participatory, but creates smokescreens of participation to maintain the status quo. We wanted to look at how art was used to maintain that power relationship, and question it and practice in a different way. To not make our art decorate the existing power structures.
We weren’t the only ones doing that. There had been a space down the street, Axe Street Arena in the eighties, which was a model for us. It wasn’t just a political space, it was art integrating and amplifying politics. It was an important predecessor to our work.
It was a different time in the city. There was this important citywide exhibition called “Culture in Action” which has had impacts around the world. We sell a PDF of it through Half Letter Press and people are still buying this from everywhere, because it was so formative, a way of articulating how art could leave its places of privilege and risk something else.
MF: Another key moment in our group was that in 2008 we started our publishing imprint and web store Half Letter Press. Publishing was important in our work from the very, very beginning. The beginning of that also overlapped with this real explosion of book fairs and events around artist publishing. There was a nice overlap at a time when we were exhibiting less and it was like, okay, I guess these book fairs and zine fests are our exhibits.
BB: We give ourselves a lot more freedom now just to do whatever. It doesn’t need to be situated within an arts discourse. We find it a pretty vapid place to put our time and energy. We’re going back to our roots this fall and reprinting this book “Prisoners’ Inventions.” It’s the drawings and writings of a friend of ours who was incarcerated in a Supermax prison in California, all these inventions prisoners use to cope with the harsh realities of prison life.
MF: The kinds of people we collaborate with remain quite similar, we don’t necessarily work with people who think of themselves as artists. We’ve never cared about the distinction between art and other forms of creativity.
BB: Museums are hopeless because the money and power that’s underneath them, it’s hard to dislodge that. I don’t think fundamentally any of those places will change. I think the education of artists is a big scam because there aren’t jobs for them.
It’s not an impossible thing but it also begs for major cultural shifts toward society that values things differently. I lived in Denmark for a number of years and artists of whatever skill, whatever fame, could get funding for their projects from the government. There’s a lot of shitty artwork that was funded but people could make their lives.
Prison and Neighborhood Arts/Education Project (PNAP) is a visual arts and education project that connects teaching artists and scholars to incarcerated students at Stateville Maximum Security Prison through classes, exhibitions, a policy think tank and guest lectures. PNAP offers a tuition-free degree-granting program at Stateville in partnership with the University Without Walls at Northeastern Illinois University. Damon Locks and Sarah Ross serve as PNAP’s directors of art and exhibition.
Sarah Ross: It started as an art project. But having other kinds of study was of interest. The first classes were art and poetry. The next semester, we added a humanities class and educators on the outside became involved and it grew from there. But the initial idea was to do a creative project inside that could build knowledge for people on the outside.
I feel like there weren’t enough vehicles to tell this story, and that those stories could be told from people that were inside. They have an analysis, they’re thinking about these things, doing this work. That analysis could inform people on the outside.
There were very few other programs or projects in Stateville at the time. There was not anything like a formal education program. We were able to introduce a formal framework and within a couple years we were teaching five classes a semester on a semester schedule. We came up with a formal application process that asked people to talk about why they wanted a class and how they could build a class community. We would regularly turn away like eighty people at a time. People were eager to get into the classes.
Damon Locks: All of this was in place when I started. After my first semester, I was asked if I wanted to stay. Having experienced the inside of the justice system, I felt obligated to myself to continue doing the work. I thought that the conditions that we keep people in and the injustice that is evident needs to be seen. If I could continue to make work to help that be seen, then that was something I had to do.
SR: In the last couple years, we’ve done these multi-year thematic projects. It is far beyond teaching classes inside. That’s a beautiful nugget of it, getting to be working alongside artists there. But on the outside we’re also thinking about: how do we bridge artists inside and out and build community in that way?
For “The Long Term” project, we held a dinner of formerly incarcerated people to talk about long-term sentencing. There was not a Parole Illinois at that time. We were having conversations about long-term sentencing and trying to think about how the work can be a catalyst for movement building, if I should be so bold to say that.
The work becomes a platform for a whole bunch of other activities that are artistic, activist or movement building, policy-oriented. If we’re talking about teaching people in the free world or making art with people in the free world, which is ultimately the goal, then there’s a certain amount of people that hold the key to open that door. How can we as artists help participate in that? The turning of that key, so to speak.
DL: Starting my work at Stateville was a creative shift in my way of thinking. It made me forever think about the world in a different way. It also affected how I was going to go about making work. As a result, I see all of my work as different parts of the same objective. After my first experience in 2014, I thought, well, my work can’t do less than this. The work that was created in that class, I was like, here’s where the bar is, I always have to work to this or above. That took some real thinking, it changed the way I worked and started me on a path of more community-based work, more teaching, more collaborations and solidarity with different people. My work as an artist is to engage people with ideas and create conversations and present information and hopefully change minds.
SR: Some stuff has manifested as organizing, that where there is no infrastructure, I have taken it on to build it, which is sometimes stupid and crazy and all-consuming. I didn’t do it alone, I did it with many other people. This work in general has made me think that you have to build the world you want to see. It’s made me think much more dynamically about education as a whole life practice and art as a whole life practice.
Over the summer, faculty, students and staff at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago wrote open letters calling for the dismantling of institutional racism at the school. First, students and campus groups raised concerns to the administration. Then a group of Black faculty came together to support the students, writing a letter with twenty-seven demands, from the resignation of administrators complicit in inaction regarding Provost Martin Berger’s 2018 use of the n-word to establishing dedicated space on campus for BIPOC students. Black Futures spoke collectively to Newcity about their demands and what has happened since. Read their full demands at: saicmovingforward.github.io/letter/
We are interested in speaking up because we don’t see that there is a choice. I’m here because I couldn’t not. As a faculty person that’s my job, to protect the interests of the students, particularly Black students, right.
It was a call to action to do something in the moment, to respond to the moment that the world was going through and that we may have been going through in particular as Black faculty and staff at the school. It was also in solidarity with the work of Black at SAIC, which is a student group.
In doing this letter, there was a lot of considering: what does it look like to speak for a group of people who have this vast set of opinions, knowledges, approaches, but also in the end support the students. It was great to take something that felt cobbled together, very dreamlike, and turn it into something detailed and specific and clear. I think about the future of that letter as a reference point for people who are working at SAIC for systemic change. I am wanting it to function as a roadmap. I’m hoping that it continues to morph and live on in that way where, as we move forward through 2020 and 2021, it’s continuing to grow and change.
I hope that with the efforts, there’s this new anti-racist committee, our letter can support these initiatives. There are new places now for these conversations to be opened.
One of the things that happened that wasn’t just about our letter, was that there wasn’t a very clear response to the broader SAIC community from the president. Some departments started taking on some of that work. And it’s not perfect, it’s highly flawed. Departments basically figuring out: where can we cut from our budget so we can do things like bring in visiting artists, or do these more productive anti-racism trainings, to just figure out where can we send funds to do the work that the letter was talking about.
One of the things that we were adamant about was, this doesn’t have to be a conversation because here’s a roadmap. This is our conversation, we started it, and there doesn’t need to be any quibbling about what’s happening because there’s just things that need to happen. It feels like the dialogue has been taken up by the community in a serious way.
All of you have taught me so much about what it means to dream and what it means to push forward and opened me up to the ways in which we as a collective body of professionals don’t dream. Especially in academia, this lack of dreaming is dangerous. And it’s dangerous for our students.
There’s a crisis of imagination. What we do know is historically, whether it’s our institution or any institution, the formation of an anti-racism committee or any committee is old hat, it’s played out. It’s not about action but it looks like action to other people. People can point to it and say, look, we formed a committee.
Our refusal is really a refusal of the refusal. The refusal of our school to significantly and seriously address not only the terms of BSU or Black at SAIC, any of the other letters. Dealing with the issues would have been a point-by-point conversation with everything that we listed. We’re not going to quibble because you are obviously not interested or serious about this. Once you get serious, maybe we’ll have a conversation.
We’re still going to support, continue to agitate, continue to organize and support each other. To me that seems to be the work that comes next. How do we provide mutual aid and relief to those who have done this work, continue to do this work, and see no big differences? How do we continue to support them and also our students? How do we support them when they’re ready to give up? We’ve seen some public testimonials to that already on social media. They’re ready to give up. That’s our real work. To some degree, to hell with what happens with the institution and these committees, but I’m invigorated and inspired by this group to continue to support and provide relief to each other and others who need it.