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Chicago's South Side Community Art Center: A Personal Recollection
In traditional African Life and culture, there is a very special person. This person is generally an elder of the tribe. This elder records through mind and memory the history and achievements of the tribe, and is called a “griot” (pronounced gree-ote). It is the duty of the griot to preserve and to pass down the achievements, exploits and legends of the tribe from father to son, from mother to daughter, from one generation to the next. The griot-ship is passed down in the family.
It seems that since I was the youngest member to sign the original charter and one of the few alive today, that I merit the pleasant task of being the South Side Community Art Center griot. At this writing there are only three people alive whose name appears on the Charter. Mine is one of them. So many of the founders have gone to their great rewards. I am pleased for the opportunity to share my memories and experiences and to record them for history’s sake.
Prior to the advent of the art center, we black artists of Chicago had no place to get together, to exchange ideas, or to exhibit our works. There were absolutely no opportunities for us to show in the downtown galleries (these galleries did not recognize art by blacks as legitimate). Only a very few of these who could afford it were able to attend classes at the Art Institute of Chicago, or the private art schools.
Before the organization of the art center, some of us ( I was still a teenager) had our first out-of-school art classes under George E. Neal. At the time, we all belonged to an art club called the “Arts and Grafts Guild.” William McGill, a sign painter, was the President and we met every Sunday afternoon at each other’s homes. Our exhibit gallery was whatever space was available. We showed at the “Y,” in a church basement, and anywhere we could. Thus, when the Federal Art Project came forth with the idea for an art center in the South Side community we were all quite interested. It was about in 1938 that we first heard that the WPA Arts Project was interested in setting up a number of art centers in a target group of cities. We were delighted to hear our city was to be included.
The initial organizer for the art center was Peter Pollack, a Jewish gentleman. Our first contact had been with Mr. Pollack when he ran a small art gallery on North Michigan Avenue. It was in this gallery that the black artists were given their first opportunity to exhibit downtown. In 1928 Peter Pollack was on the staff of the Illinois Federal Art Project, then headed by George Thorpe. Mr. Thorpe and Mr. Pollack called together a small group of “leading” black citizens, including a few young artists like myself, to talk about this proposed art center.
Our first meetings were held at the South Side Settlement House at 32nd Street and Wabash Avenue. Mrs. Ada S. McKinley, a fine woman, was the director. She was the black counterpart of Jane Addams. Indeed, I understand they were quite close friends and marched together in the streets of Chicago trying to quell racial antagonisms during the 1919 riots. Golden B. Darby, a public-spirited businessman, was Chairman of the Board of the South Side Settlement House and had recently inspired that institution to conduct a contest for the young black artists of the community. His insurance firm provided cash awards and certificates. A number of us submitted entries. I, along with Charles White, Bernard Goss, Charles Sebree, George Neal, Joseph Kersey, and others, was accepted. This was my first occasion to exhibit and I was quite proud of my blue ribbon and certificate. Shortly thereafter, when approached by Mr. Pollack, Mr. Darby accepted the post of Chairman of the Art Center Sponsoring Committee and encouraged the idea. Then, a few meetings later, a South Side Community Art Center Association was organized and chartered.
Mrs. Katherine Marie Moore, wife of Herman E. Moore, Federal Judge of the Virgin Islands, was elected the first President of the Community Art Center Association. From 1938 to 1940, meetings were held at various places, including the Urban League, which was then located at 46th and Indiana Avenue. The group also utilized a funeral parlor at 55th Street between Michigan and Wabash Avenues. At one meeting, the late Irene McCoy Gaines, a prominent club woman, stated, “I believe this art center will be the most important single factor for the improvement of the culture of the people of the South Side.” She was indeed prophetic, for the institution proved to be just that in ensuing years.
On October 25, 1939, at a committee meeting at the Settlement House, George Thorpe, Director of the Illinois State Art Project, explained that if the community could find a facility for the center, the Federal Art Project would do the renovations. It would also provide the funds for paying the salaries of the staff, teachers, and maintenance crews. It would be our responsibility to raise funds for the utilities.
Edgar E. Mitchem, an insurance man, then assumed the post of Chairman of the Finance Committee. Henry Avery, an artist, was named Chairman of the Site Committee, and Ethel Mae Nolan, a public school art teacher, was chairman of a committee to locate temporary headquarters. Many community persons were eager to participate. The task of fund-raising had been launched the same year with a campaign for “A Mile of Dimes.” I well remember that. I was 21 years old and I stood on the corner of 39th and South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Drive) collecting dimes in a can. I believe I collected almost $100 in dimes.
Later, a membership campaign was mounted under Dr. Ralph Schull, a prominent dermatologist. Assisting him were Simon Gordon, a sculptor (who incidentally taught Marion Perkins); Thelma Kirkpatrick (nee Wheaton), who is still active with today’s DuSable Museum; William Harrison; Mrs. A. M. Mercer; Anna W. Wilkins; and Verna Vaughn. A highlight of our fund-raising was the presentation of the first Annual Artists and Models Ball (1938) at the Savoy Ballroom, next to the Regal Theatre at 47th and South Parkway. Frances Mosely Matlock was the first producer of this glamorous affair. It presented models whose unique costumes were originals designed by the artists of the community. Mrs. Katherine Marie Moore served as Chairman and Mrs. Pauline Kigh Reed as Vice Chairman. The ball and other benefit events were held and soon our fund-raising efforts proved successful enough to provide the down payment for our art center home at 3831 South Michigan Avenue.
The near South Side neighborhood along Michigan avenue was lined with gorgeous Victorian-style old Gold Coast mansions. They were once occupied by Chicago’s old line families. The neighborhood underwent transition and a number of these mansions were placed on the market for a song and a dance. They were sold as is, complete with furnishings. One such was the Charles Comiskey (baseball magnate) family home. Negotiations were quickly entered into and the Art Center Association purchased the property complete with a two-storied coach house for about $8,000. With the building finally ours, there was then the excitement of seeing the expert craftsmen from the Federal Art Project redesigning the old home into offices, galleries, classrooms, and assembly hall. They did an excellent job of modernization while the fine features of the original structure were still retained.
The year 1940 was a busy one for the entire community. Along with the organizing for the new Community Art Center, we were also involved with participation in the observance of the 75th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. A state commission had been appointed by the governor to organize and oversee these programs and exhibits. The exposition filled the large halls of the Chicago Coliseum (now razed) at 14th Street and Wabash Avenue. Besides exhibits from sundry national organizations and businesses, Alonzo Aden, of the Howard University Art Gallery, was engaged to curate an exhibition of Afro-American art. This was in my area of interest and here, for the first time, I saw the works of many famous black artists, including Augusta Savage, Richmond Barthe, Archibald Motley, and William E. Scott.
Rosalie Dorsey, Katherine Davis, and I were among the young ladies who were hired to work as “Docents” in the art gallery, Many of the other people who were on the Art Center Organizing Committee were involved with the 75th anniversary programs. In fact, the 75th anniversary program, especially with its emphasis on the Negro artist, helped to prepare our community psychologically to welcome and to support the idea of an art center.
Though it was not formally dedicated until the summer of 1941, the art center began to hold classes and exhibits in 1940. In 1941, the 4th Annual Artists and Models Ball Benefit was held at the Savoy and produced by a teacher and dance fancier, Rosalie Dorsey Davis. Miss Davis was assisted by the well-known dancer (and painter) Frank Neal. The theme was “Pan-Americana.” Excitement mounted in the artists and the entire community as we moved toward the dedication of May 8, 1941. Annabelle Carey Prescott, an assistant school principal and sister to Archibald Carey, a prominent minister and lawyer, chaired the Dedication Committee. A special exhibition of sculptures by Augusta Savage, luminary of the Harlem Renaissance period, was shown in the gallery. In that year, the following persons were officers of the Art Center Association: Pauline Kigh Reed (social worker), President; Pauline J. Lawrence (businesswoman), First Vice President; Ethel Hilliard (teacher), Second Vice President; Walter A. Abernathy (businessman), Treasurer; Margaret Goss Burroughs (teacher and artist), Recording Secretary; Laura Stark (artist), Assistant Secretary and Frankie Raye Singleton (businesswoman), Financial Secretary. Other directors included Beatrice Glenn, Daniel Catton Rich, Dr. Alain Locke, Robert A. Cole, Judge George Quillici, Elise Evans Harris, Jeanette T. Jones, Katherine Dickerson, Rose Tancil, William Y. Browne, Jessica Anderson, Lida Tavernier, and Thelma Kirkpatrick Wheaton. The chairman of the board was Patrick B. Prescott.
Because the Federal Arts Projects had been ushered in by Roosevelt’s New Deal to give assistance and employment to artists and to support projects, the First Lady, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, was selected as the ideal person to be invited to dedicate the South Side Center, one of several that were opened simultaneously across the country. Another special guest was Dr. Alain Locke, Professor of Philosophy, Art and Humanities at Howard University. Dr. Locke was the author of some pioneering works on black art and culture. He had discovered and encouraged quite a number of the young black artists. On arrival in Chicago Mrs. Roosevelt was whisked from Midway Airport to the spit-shiny, renovated art center building at 38th and Michigan Avenue, where the ribbon was cut and she was taken on an official tour by the officers. Michigan Avenue from 37th Place to 39th Street was cordoned off from the traffic by police barricades. Crowds of people who could not get inside spilled down the art center steps and into the streets in an effort to catch a glimpse of the great lady. The Dedication Banquet, to which several hundred persons held tickets, was presented at the Savoy Ballroom at 47th and South Parkway (King Drive). After the tour and the ribbon-cutting, ticketed guests retired to the Ballroom. A police-led motorcade escorted Mrs. Roosevelt and the special guests to the ballroom. At the banquet, Mrs. Roosevelt and Dr. Alain Locke presented the major addresses.
An interesting anecdote about the dedication concerns J. Livert Kelly, a well-known gentleman-about-town whose activities were not considered socially acceptable by some people. However, Mr. Kelly had the undisputable honor of being the first “life” member of the South Side Community Art Center. He had unhesitatingly plunked down the first $100! Certainly one would assume that the first life member would be one of the first persons to receive an invitation to the Dedication Banquet. He should have received a seat at the speakers’ table. However, that was not in the thinking of the society ladies who were in charge of the arrangements. These ladies feared that the presence of this “uncouth” and sometimes questionable character might be offensive to the First Lady. Therefore, a decision was made not to invite Mr. Kelly. According to the grapevine, when Mr. Kelly heard of how he was being snubbed, he sent out a message that since he was the first life member, he would be coming to the banquet, invitation or not, and that he just might break up the whole party, First Lady or no. Somehow or other, by some miraculous “coincidence,” two hours before Mrs. Roosevelt arrived in town, Mr. Kelly was picked up “for questioning” by the police. He was held incommunicado until all the ceremonies were over and Mrs. Roosevelt was safely on her way back to Washington. Only then was Mr. Kelly released!
Mr. Kelly was not the only one shut out of the dedication ceremonies. We artists were just about shut out as well. However, because of the fact that we (the artists) also threatened to disrupt the proceedings, David Ross was granted five minutes to deliver the following statement which I had prepared on behalf of the artists. The speech was delivered on behalf of the center’s artists on the occasion of Eleanor Roosevelt’s dedication on May 8, 1941.
This addition to our community of the South Side Art Center, built by many sincere and hard working persons, means much to the local artist. This is what it means from the artist’s point of view.
Five years ago, we had practically no place in our community where we could exhibit our paintings and practically no audience. We had to lasso people, cowboy fashion, in order to get them to see our work. We used to meet from studio to studio, to draw and paint and talk about art and our problems as artists. People thought then that paintings were just to look at and never considered buying any to grace the walls of their homes. From our small group came forth one, George E. Neal. George was a pioneer in the development of just such an institution as we have here today. He envisioned an art center when he opened up his studio at 33rd and Michigan Avenue to us neophytes. He took us on sketching tours and to visit downtown art galleries and the Art Institute. George E. Neal, who died young at the age of 34, was the person who, more than any other, we felt was responsible for the sustained interest and development in art which is manifested today in many of the young Chicago artists. He died just when he was on the brink of gaining national recognition as an artist. He certainly should be remembered for his contribution.
George Neal, myself, and other artists rolled up our sleeves and renovated his coach house into a working studio and school. People from the neighborhood came often to model or to watch the sketch classes. Every other month or so we would have a showing of our work in the summertime. Few people came in the winters because there was only one coal stove which wasn’t too effective.
The end of the “art center” such as it was, came with a fire which almost completely destroyed the studio and 40 paintings of three of the artists who where having their first show. Thus it was that the golden opportunity for the development of the young Negro artist, hard up for food, materials and schooling, came with the Federal Arts Projects. Here was our chance to stop shining shoes al week and painting only on Sundays. This gave us a means of learning as well as earning our living as artists.
We were not then and are not now complimented by the people who had the romantic idea that we artists like to live in garrets, wear odd clothes and go round with emaciated faces, painting for fun and living until the day we died and hoping that our paintings would be discovered in some dusty attic 50 years later, and then we would be famous. As persons who were creatively endowed, we had to express our creativity and our humanity. We believed that the purpose of art was to record the times. As young black artists, we looked around and recorded in our various media what we saw. It was not from our imagination that we painted slums and ghettos, or sad, hollow-eyed black men, women and children. These were the people we saw around us. We were part of them. They were us. Thus, the coming of this community art center has opened up new hope and vistas to all of us.
As teachers, some of us were able to unearth, encourage and develop dormant talents of many. As artists ourselves, creatively, we were able to experiment and work in many techniques and processes which were denied to us before because we would not afford to pay to go to art schools or because we were discriminated against as Negroes. We feel that with this art center, a worthwhile contribution is being made to all the peoples of the community. This art center is an opportunity for self-expression and development for all people. We truly feel that art belongs to all of the people and should be enjoyed by all.
Now, in this critical wartime period, we have our own plan for defense; a plan in defense of culture. The opportunities which we have now, in the coming of the art center, we did not have before. We realize as you all do, their great benefits to our community. This quickens our determination to see to it that this art center, the first cultural institution of its kind on the South Side, and one of the few in the country shall stand and flourish.
This art center presents the means for the distribution of culture. It is thriving and in full bud now and we feel that it would be pathetic and tragic should any obstacle loom forward to hamper or destroy it. We, the artists pledge to continue to work untiringly with the admirable and socially-minded Sponsors Committee to see that the South Side Art Center continues to grow and serve the needs of our community. To this end, we pledge ourselves!
Looking back over the years, I think we lived up to our pledge. Later in the program, Mrs. Roosevelt was presented with a beautiful painting of a Negro girl by a fine WPA artist, Charles Davis. Mrs. Roosevelt, Dr. Locke, and other dignitaries gave their speeches and at last the excitement of the dedication was over. Mrs. Roosevelt was safely back in Washington and Mr. Kelly was back on the streets again. A warm glow was left over everyone concerned with the affair. Mrs. Roosevelt wrote a column called, “My Day,” which was syndicated nationwide and carried in one of our local papers. The week after the dedication she wrote the following:
At 3:15 we went to the South Side Community Art Center to dedicate their building. Chicago has long been a center of Negro art. Many Negro artists have had a hard time getting their training as many artists do, even when they have achieved a certain amount of recognition. The art center is situated in the old home of Charles Comiskey, who was once a great baseball magnate. It had become a rooming house before the South Side Art Center bought it a year ago. With the aid of federal money it has been converted to its present purposes. There are classes in drawing, oil and watercolor painting, poster lettering and composition. Gradually the teaching of some of the crafts and other skills will be added. It was all a most delightful experience and I am happy to have been able to spend this time in Chicago and to assist at these ceremonies.
The art center calendar during that dedication year was full and rich. Activities included several stellar exhibitions, lectures, and numerous art classes. A tea was given by the NAACP to honor Daisy Lampkin, one of its national officers; a Folk Party was given by the National Negro Congress as a fund-raiser to support its civil rights work. A reception was held to honor K. Marie Moore, First President of the Art Center Association. In its first year of full operations, the art center’s records stated that there were 25 exhibitions seen by 28,000 visitors. Twelve thousand children and adults participated in the various art classes. That was quite an auspicious start.1
The art center’s 1942 schedule was just as full and active. It was fully carrying out the purposes for which it was founded. Exhibits included the sculptures of Richmond Barthe of Harlem Renaissance fame. This exhibit was co-sponsored by Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, a local group of women. A traveling exhibition of the works of Chicago black artists was sent to the Howard University Art Gallery. Other exhibitions included ceramics and wood sculptures from the New Mexico Art Project. Dr. Ruth Allen Fouche, teacher and musicologist, was assisted by Katherine Davis and Margaret Goss Burroughs in presenting a series of monthly musicals. These included Leon Kirkpatrick, the concert pianist. Art center patrons at the time included Robert Maynard Hutchins, President of the University of Chicago; Dr. Urich Middeldorf, University of Chicago professor; and Elizabeth Wells Robertson, head of the Art Department of the Chicago Public Schools. Other activities included a poetry class taught by Inez Cunningham Stark Boulton. From this class emerged such luminaries as Gwendolyn Brooks, present poet laureate of the state of Illinois and Pulitzer prize winner; Davis Roberts, now a television actor; John Carlis, an artist; William Couch, a university professor; Henry Blakley, a poet; Margaret Danner, poet; and other artists.
It was rumored that the WPA federal funding might be withdrawn and the association became concerned about raising sustaining funds for the art center. Thus, on April 18, 1943, the Chicago Defender published an editorial in support of the art center’s appeal for funds. The editorial reported that 50,278 persons had been served by the art center in 1942. The editorial reiterated that “the art center must be saved!”
One of the main activities which enabled the art center to survive this withdrawal of WPA support was the Annual Artists and Models Balls which raised needed funds. These spectaculars allowed Frances Taylor Mosely (Matlock), Rosalie Dorsey (Davis), Etta Moten Barnett, Katherine and Posey Flowers, Katherine Towles, Frank Neal, and many others to demonstrate their production talents. In 1942, Kathryn Dickerson chaired the ball. Helen Page Taylor and Marva Trotter Louis, the wife of heavyweight champion Joe Louis, were co-producers. In this particular presentation, Margaret Goss (Burroughs) directed a number called “Cavalcade of the United Nations.” A columnist of the Chicago Defender noted, “The show was original, daring, esthetic and artistic.” Participants included artist Frank Neal, Winifred Ingram, George White, Robert Hardin, and Julia Gustafson. Frank Neal moved from Chicago to New York where he danced on Broadway in “Finian’s Rainbow” and other productions. In 1943 the ball (given in the last year of federal support) was again held at the famous Savoy Ballroom. Pauline Kigh Reed and Jessica Anderson were co-chairs. Talented teacher and actress Bruentta Mouzon was the producer. Her theme, “Below the Border,” was complete with Latin-American songs, dances, and costumes. It was this ball which first brought Carmencita Romero to prominence, a dancer and dance teacher who is still on the scene today. Later she danced with the Katherine Dunham group and she now teaches dancing in Madrid.
At one of those balls, Elizabeth Catlett won the grand prize. Her costume was made from my studio window drapes. At another ball, a dancer named Lester Goodman painted himself all over in gold and shook up the whole audience. Those who saw Valerie will never forget her. She was half black and half German from Vienna, and six feet tall. She was a featured dancer. Those were really the days and the nights!
Now, this is not to say that everything was smooth sailing during those years. There were numerous problems and disputes, especially between the artists and the center’s largely black bourgeois Board of Directors. The art center was our life. All of our spare time was spent there. We taught the classes and hung the exhibits. We washed the walls and scrubbed the floors. We painted the walls and we did whatever was necessary to keep the art center going. During the three years of the center’s existence, we were often mistreated and kicked out of the art center by this elite board. Somehow or other the board looked upon us artists in a deprecatory fashion. It was unthinkable that we should be on or dominate the board. We had no money, no influence, and no prestige. How could artists properly direct the affairs of such an affluent, cultural center such as they (the Board) envisioned? So, but for a few exceptions we were ignored or shut out, either as a result of our trusting naiveté of our bourgeois co-workers or by outright betrayal by some of our fellow artists who had been corrupted by the establishment. This elite board was with the center when it was riding high, but when the going got rough and the tinsel and glamour were gone, leaving only hard work and the prospect of hard work to keep the center afloat, the majority of those fine bourgeois blacks found any excuse to put the art center down.
A principal excuse given ten years later in the McCarthy period of the 1950s was that the organization had been infiltrated by Communists. But as I remember now, from the very beginning, there were always battle lines drawn between the artists and the bourgeoisie. Witness the fact that they tried to shut us out of participation in the dedication. They, the culture vultures, were always up front when there were pictures to be taken. But when the funds finally died up and we were faced with the nitty-gritty of raising money for repairs and operations, they became disenchanted and flitted off to other interests.
But the artists remained to pull the chestnuts out of the fire. This disparity, this conflict between the Board and the artists in the running of the center, still exists to some degree today, after over 40 years. For this reason I believe the center has not grown or developed as it could and has reeled year after year from one financial crisis after another. However, it has managed to survive. It survived, I believe because the property was purchased by the association. A non-profit organization, it held the center property in public trust for the people of the community.
As we progressed further into 1943, it became more and more evident that the art center would no longer receive WPA funds to pay for its salaries or operations. Reactionary congressmen wiped out all of the social and culture programs. Efforts were made to build a membership which would contribute annually to the center’s support. Pauline Kigh Reed organized a committee of 100 women to help to raise funds. Artists and board members alike cooperated together in a series of fund-raising events, with the Annual Ball remaining a major one. On May 23, the Chicago Tribune featured activities and accomplishments of the art center in an article in which it prompted the art center’s campaign for $5,000. It noted that the center was opened in June 1940 and was dedicated by Mrs. Roosevelt in May 1941, and further that its staff salaries funded by the Federal Arts Project ended in February 1943. The response of the community to that article must have been good. That was 1943. This is 1986. And the art center never once closed its doors!
The South Side Community Art Center still stands as a beacon of culture. Through the years, in good times and bad, it has acted as the catalyst which gave great inspiration and impetus to our development as artists. The art center’s activities totally involved all of us. It hasn’t been easy. In the past the South Side Community Art Center has struggled but it has managed to make do. The names are legion of those who are indebted to this WPA art center, but the list would certainly name Gordon Rogers Parks, Charles White, Eldzier Cortor, Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Danner, Gerald Cogbill, Charles Sebree, Marion Perkins, Simon Gordon, and many, many others, including myself. The experiences at the art center affected and encouraged all of our careers. And we were grateful. I personally am deeply indebted to the art center. My knowledge and expertise in organizing and working with people was honed in the over 30 years that I labored with the South Side Community Art Center. At the time of its founding, I was the youngest member of the board (age 21). I was an artist. I was the “Jane Higgins” and the “Go-For.” I kept my eyes wide open and learned much from such cultural leaders as K. Marie Moore, Pauline Kigh Reed, and Katherine Dickerson. I served for many years in the post of Recording Secretary, then the President, and finally as the Chairman of the Board. This was in 1952. Much of what I learned at the South Side Community Art Center motivated me and a few others who were oriented toward history and heritage to believe that there was room in Chicago for yet another cultural institution whose main emphasis would be on black pride and heritage. Thus, the birth of the DuSable Museum of African-American History in 1961. The South Side Community Art Center is still inspiring and encouraging, exhibiting and training young black artists and doing the job for which it was founded back in 1941.
1 It should be recorded that in the year of the art center’s dedication that the following persons served as officers: Board Chairman, Patrick Prescott; President, Pauline Kigh Reed; First Vice President, Pauline Jackson Lawrence; Second Vice President, Gonzells Motts; Financial Secretary, Frankie Raye Singleton; Recording Secretary, Margaret Goss Burroughs; Treasurer, Walter Abernathy. Other members of the Board included Kathryn Dickerson, Rena Tancil, William Y. Browne, Jessica Anderson, Lida Tavernier, Thelma Wheaton, Jeannette T. Jones, Beatrice Glenn, Daniel Catton Rich, Alain Locke, Robert Cole, Judge George Quillici, and Elise Evans Harris. Peter Pollack was the first Director and David Ross, Assistant Director.
Source: Art in Action: American Art Centers and The New Deal, 1987, edited by John Franklin White, published by Scarecrow Press, appears by permission of the publisher. This material is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.