"Magnetic Reaction" by Art Green, 1968
"Magnetic Reaction" by Art Green, 1968
“Magnetic Reaction” by Art Green, 1968

Scrappy” is hardly the first adjective one thinks of upon seeing the Hyde Park Art Center, now located in the northwest corner of the neighborhood at 50th and Cornell. Its eastern façade is sleek metal and glass; its bricks to the south are painted with the word “ART” in giant, bright, clear letters; it houses a popular coffee shop. But its beginning—seventy-five years ago in a former saloon at 1466 E. 57th Street—was more humble, and since then it has been nothing if not nomadic and resilient. Having found, in 2006, a new permanent home, the Art Center’s roots have dug even deeper into Hyde Park and the Chicago art community, but the one thing that has not changed through the years is its mission and philosophy. Still one of the premier venues for emerging artists in Chicago, the Hyde Park Art Center now celebrates both the cutting edge and local heritage in all that it displays. It is no longer just a gallery, but a true institution.

Peek into the pottery studio window near the entrance, and you’ll likely see a group of artists (or aspiring artists) hard at work on a set of diverse and pleasantly messy projects. Walk through the largest ground floor gallery, and you’ll encounter an eclectic exhibit (“Not Just Another Pretty Face”) commissioned by Chicago patrons for Chicago artists. Go up the open staircase, and you’ll see Samantha Hill’s project, “Topographical Depictions of the Bronzeville Renaissance,” featuring archival photos from Bronzeville and its surroundings hung up clothesline-style. And, next door, you’ll find a revival of an HPAC hallmark—an exhibit of the works of two less-recognized Imagist artists.. A sense of history emerges; the Art Center has not forgotten where it’s been.

The Hyde Park Art Center opened as the Fifth Ward Art Guild in 1939. As Goldene Shaw recounts in her “History of the Hyde Park Art Center,” the Guild’s original stated goal was to “stimulate community interest in art,” and by 1941, membership in the recently-rebranded Hyde Park Art Center was at 139. In 1942, that number reached three hundred, but support for art began to dwindle as the nation entered World War II. The Art Center moved to a lower-rent space at Cable Court (south of Harper, no longer extant), and later to 5645 S. Harper. By the 1950s, when HPAC was supplementing its income by “[selling] cokes at the 57th Street Art Fair,” things had settled down somewhat; 1956 (according to Shaw) “marked the end of the old days and the beginning of the Center’s modern history.” Still, the Art Center would move three more times over the next fifty years before finally setting up shop in its current, spacious home at 5020 S. Cornell (an old army warehouse, which the University of Chicago leases to HPAC for $1 per annum). Shaw, writing in 1976, would likely have found it hard to imagine the stability of the Center’s current situation.

Early exhibitions showcased “Work of the 57th Street Art Colony” and “Professional South Side Artists.” At first, HPAC’s themed exhibitions were rather prosaic in their titles and their unifying threads (“Hyde Park Art Past & Present,” the “Chicago” exhibits I-III). That began to change in 1965, when the dynamic Don Baum took over as director of the Art Center. He organized a series of exhibitions based around the “Three Kingdoms” of Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral. These were the beginning of a playful and irreverent ethos that would next manifest itself in the show that brought HPAC to light: “Hairy Who.”

Anyone who knows the Chicago Imagist movement knows about the artists who are often grouped under the name “Hairy Who”: Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Art Green, James Falconer, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum. Their work is known for its sometimes dreamy, sometimes nightmarish aesthetic, featuring bright colors and cartoonish figures. The comic book the group designed, as a teaser for their first exhibition, was likely what first drew many of their patrons to their work, with its unlikely format and impactful displays. But the Art Center itself, Art Green said in a phone interview, “wasn’t an impressive place to look at.”

“At that time,” he says, referring to the period between 1961 and 1980 when the Art Center was at 5236 S. Blackstone, “it was an old car dealership; it had black and white tile on the floor.” The lighting consisted of “big glass globes they used to have in schoolrooms hanging down every eight feet or so,” and “the walls weren’t perfect; it was kind of a shabby place.”

Still, Suellen Rocca (who, along with Karl Wirsum, also agreed to a phone interview) says that gallery openings, especially for Hairy Who shows, were “extremely lively and almost outrageously fun.” She spoke about the “community” between collectors, Hyde Park residents, and artists, and recalled graciously hosted dinner parties in HPAC supporters’ homes (Ruth Horwich, a former presiding officer of the HPAC board, was a benefactor consistently mentioned by both Rocca and Green.) And not to be forgotten, according to Green, is the “tremendous” official Art Center punch, memorialized forever in Shaw’s thoughtful history: “one fifth of Wolfschmidt vodka, one quart of Club soda and six ounces of Roses lime juice.”

“It would probably be illegal these days,” says Green, gleefully. “It was quite inebriating…[the collectors] all partook and so did we [the artists],  and it was a great bonding experience.”

As for all the positive attention “Hairy Who” received, Rocca says that “the time and place was right” and that the work was “personal,” with an appeal to humorous elements. This was a departure from the prevailing style of the era, which Green called as “flat and frankly uninteresting as possible.” The Hairy Who artists were daring at a time when it was “almost considered a bit embarrassing to be too personal in your art,” Green adds.

Of course, there were naysayers—David Katzive of the Hyde Park Herald compared the “Hairy Who II” exhibit to “half-chewed food, combined with a wet sneeze, cold lumpy oatmeal, and the memorable feeling of resting your hand on somebody’s recently discarded chewing gum”—but they were in the minority. The critic Franz Schulze, who would later coin the term “Imagism,” praised the group as “authentically mature,” and suggested that “some sort of national attention ought to be drawn to it.” Time would bear him out, but the nascent movement would never have progressed beyond its genesis without what Rocca, Green, and Wirsum agree was a thriving art community in Hyde Park—fostered especially by the “impresario” (as Rocca puts it) Don Baum.

After “Hairy Who” exhibitions I and II, in 1966 and 1967 respectively, HPAC continued to host unorthodox shows, notably “Nonplussed Some and False Image” in 1968. Thirty years later, the Art Center was mounting displays such as “10,000 Lincoln Cheese Logs,” which showcased contemporary Midwestern art, along with HPAC standards like “Homegrown!” featuring works by the Center’s faculty, students, and staff.

Today, under the direction of Kate Lorenz (who took over from Chuck Thurow in 2010), the Center continues in a similar vein: pushing boundaries without straying too far from its own backyard or forgetting its humble neighborhood origins (serving the South Side community is “an essential part of [the Art Center’s] DNA,” Lorenz says.) Lorenz also affirms HPAC’s continuing commitment to emerging artists, and, with the additional space provided by the Cornell location, its ability to give artists “opportunities to do things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do”—including “major height-specific installations” like “The Beast,” which will soon be installed by its artist John Preus, and access to “a really unique audience for a contemporary art institution.”

The Chicago art community has changed and is changing. In the words of Wirsum, there are “more smaller galleries available” now, but they’re “kind of scuffling along,” in contrast to the fewer but more uniformly successful galleries of several decades ago. The Hyde Park Art Center, therefore, continues to eke out a unique place in an art scene that is becoming more vibrant but also more competitive—as Lorenz noted, Chicago now has “five top-quality MFA programs” that graduate “some three hundred artists each year into [the city’s art community].” HPAC’s biennial exhibition “Ground Floor” provides a venue for the best of these graduates to show their work, perhaps for the first time, and the Center’s “open submission” policy means that literally anybody can propose or apply to be part of an exhibition (though the quality of work selected aspires to be quite high—the exhibitions committee is chaired by renowned and acclaimed Chicago artist Dawoud Bey.) And, now that the space is available, HPAC makes a point of showing accomplished mid- and late-career artists as well; Imagists Richard Loving and Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, whose work forms the current “Inside the Outside” exhibition, are ninety and seventy-three, respectively.

When all is said and done, the Hyde Park Art Center is a rare example of an organization that has consistently refused to fix that which was never really broken. Wartime turmoil and dire financial straits were never enough to put it to rest, and through it all, the scrappy art center continued not only to provide a venue for some (almost) starving artists, but also an outlet for South Side community members to come together and learn. Lorenz says she “can’t go to a cocktail party in the city without someone telling [her] that they took an art class [there].” Of HPAC’s future, Shaw poignantly wrote that a certain “spark” is “still there,” and that with “community support and encouragement, it will never go out.”

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