Art as a community hub during a pandemic

RAC gallery director leads panel about importance of fulfilling cultural mission

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

Community-based arts centers throughout Illinois have not stopped bringing art and art-based activities in one way or another to their neighborhoods since the pandemic hit in March. These offerings have evolved to include some in-person events, classes and gallery exhibitions with safety protocols in place. They also fill a need for creative expression during difficult times. 

This was the topic of a One State Arts Conference panel held Sept. 29, "Support and Amplify – the Role of Community-based Arts Centers in the Age of Pandemic and Social Change," conceived and moderated by Liz Chilsen, FlexSpace Gallery Director at Riverside Arts Center (RAC). The annual conference was free this year, held via Zoom and attracted 960 attendees, more than past in-person conferences. 

"I wanted to have a conversation with leaders from community arts centers about what we're all doing to keep serving our communities during this very challenging time," Chilsen said. "The arts center is the creative hub of the community, and local arts centers are increasingly important. We are part of the local fabric and civic life." 

The panel included Betsy Dollar from the Springfield Art Association, Doug Johnson of the McLean County Arts Center, Bloomington; Ciera McKissick of AMFM and Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago; and Jon Veal of alt_, Chicago.

Members of the panel discussed how they are currently serving their communities and opportunities and challenges their organizations are facing during these times.

"The confluence of challenges we are facing right now is difficult, but times like these also are an opportunity to think in new ways and create new solutions," Chilsen said.

Alt_ has responded creatively to the way things are since its inception and is "dedicated to revitalizing communities through art and culture," according to its website. 

During the panel discussion, Veal talked about asking people of the community, such as the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, where alt_ is based, what they want. 

An example is Project Stamp. Alt_ cofounder Jordan Campbell worked with the community to take photos of people in the neighborhood. Pictures were then put up on abandoned buildings. Instead of seeing the blight, they see hope, Veal said. 

With the pandemic, different needs arose. Alt_ created an exterior market space at an abandoned building in Austin. Using reclaimed wood, solar lights and other supplies, the location was transformed to shelve resources – groceries, toiletries, plants - for the Austin community, which was especially important early in the pandemic when some supplies were scarce. Other organizations have partnered to help stock the shelves  -- Grocery Run Chicago and Compound Yellow, itself a community-based arts center, located in Oak Park.  

At Hyde Park Art Center, programming is people driven, according to McKissisk. Offerings are intergenerational and include classes, public programs and exhibits.

They have learned that providing virtual classes on a pay-what-you-want basis makes their programming more accessible to community members. It is open to the public now, following protocols, and exhibiting Artist Run Chicago 2.0, featuring works from 50 area art centers, including three from Oak Park and one from Austin. 

"One clear message is that art is a human necessity and that locally based arts centers are one of the most direct and powerful ways that people in a community can access opportunities to be creative, do creative things and engage with creative ideas," Chilsen said. "These are essential activities."

Chilsen went on to say having access to art and art-based activities can do more. 

"Creativity is inherently optimistic, and creative expression can help with things like depression, fear, confusion, anxiety, PTSD."

Riverside Arts Center, 32 E. Quincy Street, Riverside, has continued to serve its neighbors too.

"These times call on us to be nimble and resourceful," Chilsen said. 

RAC offers virtual workshops and at-home kits for ceramics and painting, delivering to surrounding areas including Oak Park.

The Freeak and FlexSpace Galleries at RAC are open Thursdays through Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m., by appointment. Masks and social distancing are required. The art of Jerry Bleem runs through Oct. 17. "Humor Us," opens Oct. 25, bringing together "artists who make work that's funny as well as smart," said Chilsen. 

"For me, coming up with ways we can keep providing inspiration at the arts center is key," she said. "Being involved in creative activities both gives us a break from the anxiety and also puts us in touch with the part of ourselves that solves problems and finds light."

RAC Gallery reservations: info@riversideartscenter.com. More: riversideartscenter.com, 708-442-6400.

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