Monique Brinkman-Hill became the executive director of the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) just months before COVID shut down institutions across Illinois, and her leadership ensured the historic landmark not only survived the pandemic, but flourished in spite of it. For this year’s Art 50, Brinkman-Hill demonstrates what it means to be a cultural leader, from securing grants to preserve the Center’s archive and collection and to restore the building, to hiring a stellar staff that has staged some of the city’s most vital exhibitions in recent years. “I have an amazing team,” she says, “I look at them as what the elders used to call the talented tenth, a term that speaks to an incredible individual who shines.” The importance of SSCAC’s legacy is undeniable—it’s where Gwendolyn Brooks wrote her first book of poetry, where Charles White created some of his most iconic works and where Kerry James Marshall got married. Brinkman-Hill is committed to honoring that legacy while also ensuring that the Center’s future is just as bright.
Before you became executive director at the Center, you were on the board. How did you decide to join the board and become involved with the Center?
To join the board was really easy. It’s a historic, important institution. I was asked by one of the current board members if I was interested and said absolutely. I have a passion around art. I collect Black art and so it was a natural fit for me.
Then you became executive director just a few months before the pandemic. Talk a little bit about how you navigated that. I’m sure it entailed rethinking a lot of plans.
I started in April  as the interim executive director and I was filling a space while we did a much broader search. My background is twenty years in finance and banking and I’ve run several institutions. Once I got in here, I started working really hard and several board members were saying, you know, you should consider putting your hat in the ring, so to speak. So I went through the interview process along with others and was selected in large part because of my managerial background, finance background, familiarity with the institution, and love and appreciation of art. So take us to December where I was officially selected to be the executive director. I was so excited.
And then COVID hit. It was clear based on the information at that time that businesses were going to be shutting down. To their credit, Illinois took this very seriously. We ended up shutting down to the public in March. And that required some layoffs, with the exception of one other person working from home, and then it was me and my facilities manager and it suddenly was like, Oh, my goodness, what are we doing? But I will tell you this, and this is something that I can say in hindsight, I was able to dig into the history of the organization: the opportunities, the gaps, the finances, in a way that I would not have been able to do typically, when you’re pressed with the day-to-day. It gave me an opportunity to really think into what the Center needs. Then this thing just kept going. And it just kept going. We were fortunate in that, because of our history and the important mission and the work that we’ve done, a lot of foundations were very supportive during that time to help us stay afloat.
As we moved forward, it was clear we were going to have to reimagine. We were not set up to do virtual anything, and virtual became the norm. So we had a fast learning curve to think about how to reimagine the Center’s programming. We had some stumbles, we had some successes. Today, we’ve used all of that information to create virtual programming that has been phenomenal and engaging. Because people weren’t getting out during that time period, people were very excited about anything art. To our surprise they were very receptive and we had large attendance on a lot of the virtual programs that we were creating. And that, to me, was a sign of things to come. Today, we do both virtual and in-person, I’m happy to say, the virtual is never going away now. It’s going to be an integral part of everything that we do as we move forward.
I got real comfortable with the grant process and learning how to share a lot of the wonderful things that we’re doing at the Center. We were fortunate in that we’ve been the recipient of some wonderful grants that have been transformative and we’ve been able to bring back staff, expand the staff, and they’ve allowed us to have the bandwidth to do some wonderfully creative programming. That has been such a big opportunity for us. The Center has always had amazing programs, amazing artists, if you know a little bit of our history, shall I share a little?
I do know a bit but feel free to share whatever you like.
Well, it was founded by a group of artists, those same artists were the people who felt the need, because we think back to 1940, and we think about the politics of the era, the racism of that era, there were no real places in the city of Chicago to gather. They used the WPA [Federal Art Project] grant to help fund the purchase of this building. I’m happy to say that their brilliant thinking at that time helped us to have this important landmark building and lots attached. It’s been my experience that a lot of people don’t know about us. And my thought is the eighty-plus years of history, the amazingly talented artists that have come through this venue, the important contributions that those artists have made to the overall fabric of both the Chicago, Bronzeville and beyond community, that story needs to be told. I meet a lot of people who say I’ve never been there. It has been such an important thing for me to piggyback on the previous executive directors, and on our founders Dr. Margaret Burroughs, Eldzier Cortor, Bernard Goss, Charles White, William Carter, Archibald Motley, Joseph Kersey, to really get the word out that this is such an important institution. It has been critical that we tell our story. And because we’re telling our story, we’re saying to those that haven’t had a chance to meet us yet that this institution has a significant history that we want them to learn about. It is not just our boxes and archives. We’ve also got a collection of over 500 pieces of art, and through a generous grant from the Terra Foundation, we are going to be expanding our art archives and collections area, so that we will have a state-of-the-art program.
Of your accomplishments from the past few years, what are you most proud of?
I’m most proud that we continue to thrive, that we are not just surviving. We are thriving, we’re growing our programs, we’re expanding our staff, we’re growing awareness and knowledge within the community. I’m really proud that our story is being told to a broader audience through the benefit of a lot of the virtual programming and social media. I’m really proud of this institution and its history. We’ve had years that have been ups and downs in terms of financial, and to say eighty-two years later that we’re thriving, we’re expanding, we’re growing our capabilities, we’re restoring the building. We are using virtual programming and social media to tell our story not just here in Chicago but across the country. That’s exciting.
How would you say your past experience in the finance or banking world translates to your position?
Nonprofits are structured differently, but they’re businesses, they need to be fiscally responsible. They need to maximize programming. They need to make sure that they’re doing good work. They need to have good customer service and people need to feel welcomed, like in many businesses. So I would say the fiscal certainly is key. The other key is I ran different centers, though they were financial centers, I understand the business of facility management and operations. I’ve run teams so I understand the management piece of that. I have a serious appreciation for how we diversify the sources of our revenues that are coming in and looking for ways to maximize that. That’s my financial background. But my personal background is I’m a huge art collector, and I’ve loved and collected art for over twenty years. I am not an artist, but I have such an appreciation for the art, for the artists. And I want to do the things that I know are important to help them grow in their careers, as well as do the things that are really important to build on the legacies that were before me and to leave an incredible legacy with my team, to take it to the next steps in its journey as an organization.
You’ve mentioned the incredible legacy of the organization, I think it’s also important that you’re focused on bringing the Center into the future. You have this new website, you’ve really expanded staff and programming. What is your vision going forward?
What I see for the future is that we are embarking on a huge restoration campaign for the building and that is something that’s critically important. The building has been in need of some repairs, some improvements to the bathrooms and making it accessible. Certain things, of course, because we are a landmark institution, won’t change. But those things that can be improved upon, we’re working with the architects to figure out how to keep the integrity of the building, while reimagining its usefulness and reclaiming spaces that may have been underutilized because they fell into disrepair over the years. Between 2022 and 2024, we hope to complete these projects.
Through a generous donation, we have the lot to the north of us and we’re looking to use that lot for expanded programming outdoors and truly have more community types of programming. We have an intimate space, and we will be expanding our basement and our third floor. But that outside lot does allow us to have future outdoor community types of programming and that’s exciting.
We’ll be launching later this month a project that will include bringing on emerging artists for some pop-up exhibitions in one of our smaller galleries, to showcase up-and-coming artists. At the same time we will continue to have between four to eight exhibitions per year in our main gallery.
Sustainability is critically important to me. We’ve been around eighty-two years and I’d like to see it be here eighty-two more years. What I talk to the team about is that we are rebuilding and leaving individual and collective legacies for the work that we’re doing today. Of course, most of us won’t be here in eighty-two years but I’d like to know that a lot of what I’m doing today is building the sustainability for the organization for the future. That includes the processes and the fiscal sustainability and the building. So that’s an important component to me: sustainability, continued longevity, continued relevance. The times, I won’t say that they’ve changed, because in many ways when we look at the political landscape, they haven’t changed. But it continues to be important that we support Black artists and share and educate the community on the importance of art.
Is there anything else that you’re looking forward to?
We’re excited about an event on September 17. We’re calling it a homecoming in much the same tradition of the HBCUs that they have a homecoming, bringing everybody home. It’s designed for artists who have been a part of the Center to come home and celebrate together, as well as new artists to the Center. And we are thinking about how we continue to be a resource, both from an educational standpoint but also a support standpoint. We’re super-excited about the homecoming, preserving the house that art built, coming home to the house that art built.
Currently we have an exhibition which I’m excited about, “…of the land: acts of refusal and ratification.” That exhibition features three sculptural artists: Lola Ayisha Ogbara, Ajmal “MAS MAN” Millar and R. Treshawn Williamson and it’s something unique for us, a complete sculptural exhibition. Then we will have another show, “The Dandelion Nine,” which will come in October, and run through the end of the year and will feature nine Black female artists who came together to create during the pandemic.
The other thing that’s really important is we brought in a membership manager and that’s also part of sustainability. We have been maintained these eighty-two years by artists and by community stakeholders. We’re building a membership platform as well as a volunteer platform, to bring those supporters to the Center, to be a part of connecting the dots of our sustainability. To me, it’s a collective community thought process.