Engaging Our Communities

University of Chicago announces plans for Arts Block in Washington Park

In just three years, the University’s Arts Incubator in Washington Park has demonstrated the ability to build strong ties with the surrounding community through the arts.

In just three years, the University’s Arts Incubator in Washington Park has demonstrated the ability to build strong ties with the surrounding community through the arts.

Initiative includes concept for arts center by architects Johnston Marklee

The University of Chicago is working with community partners to develop a stretch of historic East Garfield Boulevard into a major arts and culture corridor called the Arts Block. The Arts Block expands the University’s efforts to convert vacant spaces along the block into a mix of artist studios, performance and exhibition facilities, retail establishments, and public program and education spaces.

The Arts Block builds upon the success of the University’s community-focused Arts Incubator and Place Lab, and additional enterprises along the block including the Currency Exchange Café and BING Art Books.

A new arts center is imagined as a potential next step of the Arts Block effort. Located at 317 E. Garfield Blvd., the proposed Green Line Arts Center will be an interdisciplinary hub for music, dance, theater and film production, and will serve as a platform for artists from the South Side and beyond. The public was invited to view design concepts by the architecture firm Johnston Marklee for the proposed arts center and experience the Arts Block at a celebration event on June 4, 2016, at the Arts Incubator, 301 E. Garfield Blvd.

The Arts Block plan enhances the University’s commitment to arts and culture and to promoting strong communities on the South Side of Chicago. It also builds upon the rich cultural heritage of the Washington Park neighborhood and historic Garfield Boulevard.

“As an urban research institution, the University of Chicago is committed to understanding and developing solutions to urban challenges in our city and around the globe, and we believe the arts can play an essential role in making that commitment a reality,” said President Robert J. Zimmer. “Working with University arts scholars and practitioners as well as community organizations and other partners, we are in the process of developing a major arts and culture corridor for the South Side of Chicago.”

The Arts Block will be an important addition to the cultural landscape of the South Side, which includes more than 80 arts and cultural organizations like the DuSable Museum of African American History, the Museum of Science and Industry, Robie House and numerous institutions on the University of Chicago campus.

Revitalizing neighborhoods through the arts

Theaster Gates, professor in the Department of Visual Arts and director of Arts + Public Life, who is leading the vision for the 100,000-square-foot stretch of Garfield Boulevard, said the Arts Block will help restore the cultural vitality of Washington Park, which was home to bustling jazz clubs and businesses up through the 1930s.

“To transform a neighborhood, we have to help people believe that beautiful things can happen there. Arts and culture are some of the ways we can do that,” Gates said. “Investing in people’s abilities and developing space for creativity to thrive are ways we can demonstrate that belief.”

The proposed Green Line Arts Center is in a preliminary, conceptual phase.

In conjunction with the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial, the University of Chicago hosted an architectural competition to reimagine a vacant, 1920s-era, terra-cotta and brick façade building on Garfield Boulevard. The proposed Green Line Arts Center includes a cinema, a live performance theater, a dance studio and studios for resident artists. The concepts proposed by Los Angeles-based architectural firm Johnston Marklee were deemed the most promising among a highly competitive pool of seven finalists.

An eight-member jury favored Johnston Marklee’s vision in large part because of the firm’s demonstrated ability to design distinctly contextual buildings housing beautiful and functional spaces using common materials in unexpected ways. The proposal seeks to preserve the building’s historic façade, a link to the building’s history as a jazz club in the 1920s.

The establishment of the Green Line Arts Center is dependent on donor support, and the University is seeking funding. As planning moves forward and funds are secured, the University will continue to work with Washington Park neighbors and the Green Line Arts Center Advisory Committee to shape programming. The advisory committee includes arts faculty and administrators at the University and leaders at Chicago-based cultural organizations, including Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Joffrey Ballet, KLEO Center and Lucky Plush Productions, among others.

Additional plans for the Arts Block include transforming a vacant lot into an open-air pavilion structure that will be the focal point of an outdoor, public green space. With support from the Project for Public Spaces, Arts + Public Life conducted workshops with local community members to develop a vision for programs in the public space, including a range of free public programming led by Arts + Public Life and community partners. The new public space is supported by the University of Chicago and Southwest Airlines’ Heart of the Community grant—a program developed to support and activate public spaces in the heart of cities.

Building upon success of the Arts Incubator

Already a thriving center of artistic activity, the Arts Block is home to the University’s Arts Incubator, which hosts a residency program that supports local artists in all disciplines, a design apprenticeship program for teenagers and a rich array of public programming. In just three years, the Arts Incubator has attracted more than 30,000 participants at more than 650 free public events and programs, and served hundreds of area teens through its design apprenticeship and youth programs.

“The Arts Incubator demonstrates the ability to build strong ties with the surrounding community through the arts,” said Sian Beilock, vice provost for academic initiatives at UChicago. “The Arts Block allows us to continue that work on an even larger scale, while also providing new opportunities for UChicago faculty and staff to engage with artists and the community on the South Side.”

Throughout the development of the Arts Block, the University has sought input from community residents, elected officials, local organizations and philanthropic partners, and will continue to do so. Arts + Public Life hosted community workshops that gave residents an opportunity to share their hopes for the future of Garfield Boulevard.

“The Arts Block is a welcome addition to the Washington Park community and serves as another important step toward building an iconic arts hub on the South Side," said Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “Creating a new arts corridor will not only bring economic opportunities for the surrounding neighborhoods, it will engage and inspire more residents through major public art and culture projects. That can have a multiplying effect, further strengthening neighborhoods and communities throughout the South Side." 

Third Ward Alderman Pat Dowell also offered her support for the project.

“Starting with the Arts Incubator more than three years ago, members of the Washington Park community have provided input and ideas to help realize the great potential of East Garfield Boulevard,” said Dowell. “These efforts already have brought new cultural and retail activity that benefits both the University of Chicago and the neighborhood. I look forward to continuing to partner with the University to pave the way for future growth along this important thoroughfare and in the Washington Park neighborhood.”

For more information on the Arts Block, visit arts.uchicago.edu/apl.

Adapted from an article by Mary Abowd
Originally published on June 3, 2016

Illustration by Johnston Marklee

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