Visual Arts

Can McKinley Park Become an Art Hub?

The Chicago Urban Art Society seeks to broaden arts accessibility on the Southwest Side

Courtesy of the Chicago Urban Art Society

Lauren Pacheco needed a drink. Clad in a crisp white blouse and dark jacket, she’d just returned from presenting her thesis for a master’s in arts administration and policy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But it was only Monday, and the week was far from over. On Friday, Chicago Urban Art Society, the arts organization she and her brother, Peter Kepha, founded nearly ten years ago, would debut its new space in McKinley Park.

“We hope to put McKinley Park on people’s radar,” Pacheco said. Right now, it isn’t. Like Brighton Park next door, where Pacheco and Kepha grew up, and which is also majority Latino and middle-income, there’s not much in the way of an artistic community.

“Our area was always devoid of arts and culture, of anything, pretty much,” Pacheco said. “We’re just trying to give it what we’ve always wanted.”

This homecoming meant giving up their old gallery in art-rich Pilsen for a cheaper space tucked away in the stockyard district, surrounded by rumbling trucks and industrial buildings, and across the street from a packaging manufacturer. The sense of isolation is easily broken: the heart of Bridgeport is only a mile away, the Bridgeport Art Center less than half a mile, and a 35 bus stop is right around the corner.  Still, Kepha admitted they were a “destination spot,” and their social network promotion leading up to the opening had become, Pacheco said, more aggressive than ever before.

The space itself is a step up. The old Pilsen gallery, which they left in November, was 3000 square feet. Now they have 8000 square feet to play with. It’s “big, open, raw, and intended to be that way,” Pacheco said, perhaps a little wryly as she passed a Little Caesars box perched on a small ladder and stepped on floors still splattered with paint. “I just really like that industrial look. It kind of has that New York feel, you know?”

To make the size more manageable, Pacheco and Kepha put up white walls that divide the room into five exhibition spaces, not counting the two rooms they’ve set aside for programming: two four-walled main galleries and several three-walled “micro-galleries” orbiting them. (Kepha prefers calling them “cubbies”) One, Pacheco said, might be reserved for visual exhibitions, one for sculpture, one for performance. The back room might become a screening room; one room might become a “sharing library” with drafting tables and studio space.

What Pacheco and Kepha are sure of is their commitment to making their gallery accessible to the surrounding community. While Kepha is an artist and CUAS’s main curator, Pacheco’s background is in social work. Together they’ve long been interested in the intersection of social justice and the arts, and have previously partnered with arts advocacy organizations like Arts Alliance Illinois and Illinois Humanities Council.

Although Pacheco referenced the “rich cultural traditions” of Latino communities on the Southwest Side, neither sibling knew if there were local artists in McKinley Park to engage with, and Kepha remarked, “It’s important for a gallery to reach out and bring people in.” (CUAS’s main exhibit that opened this past Friday was “Mirrored Infinity” by John Whitlock, an artist from Brooklyn, NY who had never visited Chicago before he exhibited in a CUAS group show a couple years ago.)

But critical to fostering an arts community in a neighborhood is fostering the creation of art within the neighborhood. Pacheco’s first instinct towards that end was to work with local community-based organizations, but there aren’t many except the basics: churches and schools.

“You’re still dealing with an old model,” Pacheco said, “and you’re like, ‘Hey, we’re a contemporary arts organization that works with [SAIC] and the University of Chicago, and we want you to come in here.’”

That’s one of Pacheco and Kepha’s firmest plans: “cross-institutional partnerships” with local universities that let art students engage with a community rather than just snagging coveted exhibition space in the Loop or Wicker Park. SAIC, the UofC, and UIC have all shown interest in such a partnership, and Pacheco’s working on a funding model.

“If youth and young adults are interested, how great would it be for them to engage with an institution in a space in their neighborhood?” Pacheco said, envisioning the relationship also as a possible pipeline for local talent to enroll in the universities.

Churches and schools, however old a model they might be, are likely ready to return the engagement. McKinley Park church pastor Seth Hammond said his church “would be thrilled to see the arts flourish here.”

“I can think of a few adults and children who might be interested,” he said, referencing workshops and panels that Pacheco envisions, though he added CUAS had yet to reach out to his congregation. Outreach, he said, would be a must, especially because of CUAS’s proximity to Bridgeport.

“Rather than drawing people over from Bridgeport, they will have to be focused and intentional on reaching the existing residents of McKinley Park and Brighton Park, who are definitely a different type of community than what Bridgeport has been becoming,” Hammond said.

Of course, Pacheco and Kepha are those residents—Kepha lives ten minutes away from the gallery, and considers their greatest strength to be that they are in fact insiders. “Just because we’re Latino doesn’t mean we need a Latino-centric space,” said Pacheco. “We don’t need to pander.”

“It’s just because a community needs an art space,” she added, grouping it with other neighborhood necessities: healthcare, groceries, a theater, a Boys & Girls Club. (The closest Boys & Girls Club is in Bridgeport.)

Striking a balance between destination spot and community art space may be delicate, but dedication to the latter is essentially why Pacheco and Kepha do what they do. That’s why Kepha has been selling records for the past three years and will be opening a vintage vinyl store in Pilsen this summer, that’s why Pacheco will soon be heading to grad school again while she simultaneously goes “chasing grant, grant, grant” for CUAS—so they can make rent as well as do what they love. So that there can be art, and a community can access it.

“I started doing this work when I was twenty-six,” Pacheco said. “It means a lot because looking at organizational longevity and other interests, ten years is a long time, but I feel like we’re just kind of beginning in some ways…This space is more authentic to our interests and original intentions.”

This week, though, art was the immediate concern. On Friday night, at the gallery opening, the metal sheets that covered the wooden floors had been sanded, no longer paint-splattered, and the old cracked windows had been replaced by sleek ones that actually allowed a view outside.

The art on display was a little overwhelmed by the space’s immensity, since there were only John Whitlock’s collages in the main galleries and, spread throughout the micro-galleries, ceramics by SAIC MFA student Taehoon Kim, whose work was being exhibited as part of CUAS’s new Case Study Residency Program for emerging artists.

This sparser setup would not be the norm, Kepha said, adding, “I’m just happy the lights are on.” What was important was that the art was good, and that wherever art couldn’t fill up the space, people did: clusters of viewers, diverse in both ethnicity and age, chatted in the galleries and on benches, meeting with hugs of recognition and parting with farewells of “nice to meet you!” Collectors had come, Pacheco said, and the usual people “just making the rounds,” but also “new folks,” and even, she was excited to note, people whom the intense online promotion had reached: workers at South Side nonprofits who wanted to support South Side art spaces. Close to fifty people were milling about by 8:30pm, even a couple kids running underfoot, and Pacheco figured they would hit over one hundred by the time the open house closed at 11:30.

“I’ll worry about sales tomorrow,” she said. In moments like these, it is unclear what will define the success of the new CUAS: the quality and reception of the art exhibited within, or the impact on the community outside. They can align, but they don’t have to.

On Monday, the siblings had made much of the riskiness of CUAS’s latest direction. In the gallery that Friday, as people periodically entered and peered at Whitlock’s video projection of collage photos overlaying abstract sculpture, or discovered anew one of Kim’s small ceramic popsicles on the back of an obscure column, it was easy to forget all these people had arrived by very purposely walking a quarter-mile down a narrow, pebble-strewn sidewalk and up a flight of stairs onto the second floor of an old industrial building. It was also easy to realize many of these people came from outside McKinley Park.

“We’re so close to being something for our neighborhood,” Pacheco had said on Monday. Whatever that something is, to make CUAS’s arrival a true homecoming, CUAS will have to be more than a destination spot for those outside McKinley Park; they’ll have to be one for those inside it as well.

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