In Beverly native Jane Zia’s lifetime, she’s heard people describe the area as a “cultural wasteland.” But the truth is there has been an artistic presence in the neighborhood for over a century— Charles Hutchinson, the first president of the Art Institute of Chicago, and John Vanderpoel, an anatomy illustrator whose books are still widely taught today, both lived in the neighborhood. But even as lower-profile artists lived and worked in Beverly through the twentieth century, no major art groups emerged.
Enter Monica Wilczak. In spring 2014, she met artist Sal Campbell through a mutual friend. In June, Wilczak met Lizzy Benner at a St. Barnabas grade school reunion, and they started discussing ideas for a street fair. From there, Wilczak, Campbell, and several founding board members (including Benner) soon developed a long-term plan for an arts alliance with a special focus on Far South Side artists. The street fair, (officially known as Art Walk) took place this past October, and received citywide coverage. Since then, the Alliance has held pop-up shows in bars, restaurants, small galleries, and empty storefronts. They also run a reading series in Beverly called the Frunchroom, and also host professional development workshops for artists.
“For a long time it was slow,” said artist Sandra Leonard. “People are finally coming out of the woodwork.”
As an arts coalition that exclusively sources local artists, the Beverly Area Arts Alliance is the first of its kind in the neighborhood. In organizing the group, the artists and administrators of the Alliance have had to contend with the realities of high rent, geographic isolation, and low artist visibility. Their goals, they say, have been shaped by what is possible in this neighborhood.
Before the Alliance existed, there was the Beverly Arts Center. Housed in an imposing brick building that dominates the 111th block of Western Ave., the BAC has served as Beverly’s arts hub since its founding in 1967. It showcases performing and visual artists and hosts educational programming for children. There is some overlap between the BAC and the Alliance’s leadership:. Wilczak served on the committee to save the Beverly Arts Center back in 2013. Leonard is a member of the BAC’s gallery committee, and Alliance co-founder and artist Sal Campbell is an Auxiliary Board member.
Wilczak says the organizations, one old and one new, see each other as partners. The BAC hosted some of the larger events of the Art Walk and plans to do the same this year. For the remainder of the year, the BAC focuses on performance arts and children’s programming, and the Alliance showcases visual art with the occasional music or spoken word performance. The biggest difference though, is the Alliance’s focus on local artists: while the BAC brings in artists from across the country, the Alliance recruits artists from Beverly and surrounding neighborhoods.
According to the BAC Executive Director Heather Robinson, eighty percent of visitors to their ticketed events are residents of Beverly. So far Alliance is charting the same course, with heavy outreach to Beverly-area schools and businesses. They do not collect data on visitors, but nearly everyone I spoke to at their Ephemera Gallery show this spring came from the Far South Side or the southwest suburbs.
The Alliance has no age or experience requirement, but the artists that join do skew toward middle-aged and art-school-educated. At the show I attended, all but one artist was over thirty. Many had brought their children. “I don’t know that young people have moved to Beverly for the arts scene yet,” said Campbell. “It’s better for established artists.” Meanwhile, young artists who grow up in Beverly say they sometimes find a lack of creative outlets. Artist and musician Nathan Barksdale says, “there are a lot of bars, but those aren’t really open performance spaces.” Musician Ruby Dunphy recalls playing open mics at an Italian restaurant and World Music as a teen. Both venues had closed down by the time Dunphy’s second band formed in 2014. “We couldn’t find any gigs in Beverly, not even open mics,” she says.
Barksdale and Dunphy both ended up joining artistic communities outside of Beverly. Dunphy met her bandmates at Chicago High School for the Arts. After Beverly’s open performance spaces shut down, they started playing North Side and Pilsen gigs, with much larger audiences. Barksdale went a similar route at Whitney Young. “It’s hard to even get my friends out of Beverly but trying to create a scene [here] is damn near impossible,” he said. Both of them stress the importance of open (non-curated) performances in the formation of an arts scene. Pointing to other neighborhoods, Barksdale says that the DIY approach made Avondale, Logan Square, Wicker Park, and Pilsen popular places for artist communities.
The problem is that the DIY scene that young artists prize so much can’t grow in Beverly.
“Beverly stands out as a different area,” says Alliance artist Susannah Papish, who lived in Logan Square and East Garfield Park in the 1990s, at one point sharing a studio with squatters. She explains that while gentrification debates rage on in these creative neighborhoods, Beverly’s artists face a different problem: entry. In most North Side cases, Alliance member Chris Wilczak says, “capital followed culture.” Artists would move into a neighborhood, driving up rent for residents. Beverly, on the other hand, “is already a successful, stable neighborhood. We [the Alliance] aren’t going to price anyone out of here.”
While there’s a desire for art in Beverly, the cost of rent has often prohibited even seasoned artists from setting up shop. The Alliance’s artists have so far dealt with this individually by either working from their homes in Beverly, or renting studios in other neighborhoods. As a group, they create pop-up galleries and partner with local businesses for exhibitions. In the long term, says Wilczak, “Our goal is a studio space in Beverly. The building will have a gallery in the front, a workspace in the back, and studios on another floor.”
Beverly may not have been an art destination in the past, but the Alliance is working to change that. In the past year, it has begun to spread, leaving marks all over the neighborhood: a few paintings here, a mural there, a reading next door. It may be, then, that unlike the past generations of artists in Beverly, the Alliance will not fade into the background.
Correction: This article has been changed to reflect that Sal Campbell is a co-founder of the Alliance.