BRONZEVILLE — The South Side Community Art Center, a pillar in the rich historic Bronzeville neighborhood, has been named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The news was announced Tuesday at a media conference held at the center, 3831 S. Michigan Ave.
[Masequa Myers, executive director of the South Side Community Art Center. Photo by Andrea V. Watson]
The center has been a “groundbreaking cultural institution,” said Barb Pahl, senior vice president for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The designation to the art center means that it’s “a part of the nation’s history book,” Pahl said.
She said they are committed to working to help preserve and restore the building, which was first built in 1892. It was originally a home, then later rented out as apartments until former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated the art center in 1941.
It was one of nearly 100 art centers established by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art project, a Great Depression-era program to expose the public to art, while providing useful work for unemployed artists and teachers.
The Bronzeville art center has been pivotal in the black art movement. It became a place for black artists to showcase their work when many galleries wouldn’t exhibit it. The South Side Community Art Center launched the careers of many known African American artists such as William Carter, Charles White, Archibald Motley, Jr., and Dr. Margaret Burroughs, as well as the poet Gwendolyn Brooks—the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize—and Life magazine photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks.
Beyond operating as a gallery, the center has served the community as a cultural center. For decades, generations of residents have connected to art through exhibits, classes, lectures and other creative programming.
“For 75 years, people who walk through the doors of the South Side Community Art Center have been able to experience something they can’t find anywhere else,” said Masequa Myers, executive director of the South Side Community Art Center.
“Not only do people who come here see fantastic art from brilliant artists, they also get a chance to step back in time and experience the history of this building that has inspired generations of artists over the years,” Myers said. “We have always been a place of hope and opportunity for African American artists and members of the community, and with this designation, I know the South Side Community Art Center will continue to be a place that celebrates, supports and helps tie this community together for generations to come.”
[Teen participant Alreona Phillips, left, and Masequa Myers, executive director of the South Side Community Art Center. Photo by Andrea V. Watson]
Twyler Jenkins, the art center’s co-president, said that the board has been resilient and resourceful, “doing a lot with a little.”
The building needs window repairs and electrical work done. The board says it’s in need of substantial renovation. There hasn’t been any major rehabilitation work done in decades.
Officials with National Trust for Historic Preservation said that this designation doesn’t come with any dollars, however, they will work with partners to identify grants.
Jenkins said they welcome support from everyone to keep the facility going, although it’s not in any immediate trouble.
“We’ve had so much rich history here and I want to preserve it,” she said.
Besides viewing art, the center has always been a space to discuss social issues, said Myers. They even facilitate an After Schools Matter program to attract the community’s young people.
Alreona Phillips, 16, participates in the art center’s teen theater program. Although she lives in Chatham, her father is in Bronzeville.
“I like acting and it’s something I’ve always found myself drawn to, so being able to come here and create it is what inspired me to come,” she said.
“I’m so happy this [art center] is being preserved because I don’t want it to be forgotten,” Phillips said. “I hope it continues to bring the next the generation and inspire them.”