South Chicago Art Center expands space, programming for youth

March 14, 2014

WBEZ/Natalie Moore
The current South Chicago Art Center location at 3217 E. 91st Street.

The South Chicago Art Center, all 800 square feet of it, is tucked away in a small storefront on East 91st Street. But not for long. This spring the center will break ground on a new 6,000-sq. ft. space a few blocks away.

“Having this space will engage kids on a more intensive level and it will also be a respite for kids who want to be off the street in a safe space,” said executive director Sarah Ward.

Established in 2001, the center today serves 3,200 youth not only in the storefront but in area schools. Visual arts programming ranges from painting to photography.

The new building will cost $650,000 and about $100,000 is from the Small Business Incremental Fund  program using Tax Increment Financing (TIF) revenues. The new building -- a former dry cleaners -- will be at 91st and Commercial near businesses, a library and YMCA. Along with higher visibility, the new center will be in neutral gang territory.

The South Chicago neighborhood is racially mixed with mostly blacks and Latinos. Almost a third of residents live in poverty and the area is divided by splintered gangs and block-by-block street crews.

“We run a scrappy group here but we run a really effective intensive program through our school program,” Ward said. “Just revitalizing a space in a neighborhood is so important. It gives life and respect and makes the people in the neighborhood feel like someone cares about them.”

Arinique Allen, 19, started making art at the center when she was five years old. Now she’s an intern and freshman at Columbia College.

“It was fun growing up here. I made a lot of friends here,” Allen said. “It made me more creative. It made me think more out the box.

Likewise, Anthony Steele remembers coming to the center and “getting up under the table and painting on our back like Michelangelo.”

Now 24, Steele says the center cultivated his love of art, and led him to become a painter and sculptor. He eventually came back to run the art studio -- a space that’s about to get a lot bigger.

is a WBEZ reporter. nmoore@wbez.org Follow Natalie on Google+,  Twitter