University of Chicago opens arts incubator in Washington Park

Renowned artist Theaster Gates is behind the arts incubator.

March 8, 2013

The University of Chicago has opened an arts incubator just west of campus on a once-desolate corner in the Washington Park neighborhood.

Empty storefronts languish nearby on Garfield Boulevard and the incubator is charged with being a haven for artists and a creative space for the surrounding South Side community.

Acclaimed international artist Theaster Gates is the visionary behind the incubator. He’s involved with projects around Chicago that use art to rehab abandoned buildings in areas scarcely on the verge of trendiness.

“We want to be engaged with the rest of our neighbors around asking what else can happen on Garfield Boulevard corridor,” Gates said Friday at the grand opening. “Then we’ll party. And we’ll have live jazz performances and live blues performances and talks by amazing artists and thought leaders who [are] coming into the city from other places.”

Currently, several artists in residence are using 10,000 square feet of space. There’s a woodshop for design apprenticeship programming. The two-story terra cotta building dates back to the 1920s and used to be a Walgreen’s. It will be open daily and for additional public programming.

“We’re in a moment where the South Side’s cultural asset, it’s spatial asset should be recognized by the rest of the city,” Gates said. “I’d love to see 20 venues on 55th Street and 63rd Street and 61st Street and 71st Street. I’d love to have difficulty deciding where I'm going to go because there are so many great opportunities for cultural engagement.”

University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer said the incubator represents the school’s desire to expand the arts. But it’s also about being a good neighbor.

“I’ve driven by here for 30 some-odd years. I’ve seen this building. It’s made me sad over the years to see a building that was not living up to its potential for what it could be and what it could represent to the community around it,” Zimmer said.

He said the incubator will facilitate existing and potential partnerships.

In 2008, the university purchased the property and has invested $1.85 million in renovations.

“When the university started purchasing land in this area in 2008, I have to tell you I was a bit skeptical,” 3rd Ward Ald. Pat Dowell said. “But this incubator could not be a better way to come into this neighborhood.”

When the university started buying up land five years ago in Washington Park, many residents were concerned. The school wasn’t forthcoming with its plans and historically hadn’t been supportive of the surrounding black neighborhoods. In recent years, that’s changed with tangible investment dollars.

Brandon Johnson, executive director of the Washington Park Consortium, said it’s the community’s responsibility to make sure the incubator thrives.

“What are we going to do as a community to increase other arts opportunities so that we have children and residents being pipelined to be the feature in this building?” Johnson asked.

At the grand opening of the incubator, writer avery r. young closed the morning with a poem. The artist in residence fittingly described what a piece of blight has transformed into at the corner of 55th and Prairie.

“We turn bone into beautiful, dust into magic.”