In its Bronzeville neighborhood, the South Side Community Arts Center is known as a space that celebrates the fine arts, and it’s recognized as a place where residents learn how to master their creative crafts.
But on Tuesday, the center will be named a National Treasure, a move its supporters and administrators hope will elevate its reputation far beyond the city.
“This will increase our public profile, and people who didn’t know about us before will know us now,” said Masequa Myers, executive director of the center. “This new relationship will make available resources and give us exposure that the center deserves. We will be a bigger part of the tourism promotion, and visitors to the city will know the South Side Community Arts Center is a place you must see.”
Administrators with the National Trust for Historic Preservation will appear at the handsome brick building on South Michigan Avenue to make the official announcement Tuesday morning. There, they will be joined by staff from the center, along with a collective of artists who have been touched by the organization’s work.
“The South Side Community Arts Center helps to tell an important story about African-American artists at a time when segregation and racism prevented many of them from more fully contributing to the cultural life of the United States,” said Stephanie Meeks, the president and CEO of the National Trust, in a released statement. “The center has long been a beacon of tolerance and understanding, using art to enrich the community while serving as a welcoming place for people from all walks of life.”
The arts center was founded in 1940 by a group of artists, led by Margaret Burroughs and Eldzier Cortor, that devoted its talent to capturing images of black life.
In 1941, the center was dedicated by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and it became one of nearly 100 art centers funded by the Works Progress Administration. That program employed artists and teachers during the Great Depression and allowed them to get paid for their skills.
In Chicago, in the following decades, the center was the place where now iconic and celebrated artists like Gordon Parks, Archibald Motley and William Carter honed their craft and shared their gifts with the community. Gwendolyn Brooks also worked at the center and made appearances there. For most of the artists, it was the first or only space that would exhibit their work because they were black.
The center is the only WPA art facility that is still operating in the same building, Myers and officials with the National Trust said. The center is also unique because in addition to serving as a launching pad for artists, it’s a space that offers dozens of classes at an affordable rate, officials said.
Other sites listed as National Treasures include the Houston Astrodome and Nashville’s Music Row.
Tuesday’s event opens the door for fundraising assistance from the National Trust and is one step toward the center becoming listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Myers said. Currently she is raising money to continue restoring the building, which sits on a residential block. She also wants to make the building more accessible to the disabled.
“I first walked through the doors of the South Side Community Arts Center decades ago and met Dr. Margaret Burroughs and other iconic artists that were rooted here,” she said. “I returned because I thought it was important for this cultural beacon to remain in our community. Art is a way to uplift and affirm our youth. We are extremely proud of what we offer — we’re not only a gallery, we are a place to come and learn and share.”