Charles White, Eldzier Cortor, Archibald Motley Jr., Dr. Margaret Taylor Burroughs, Elizabeth Catlett, Marion Perkins, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, William Carter, Gwendolyn Brooks—these are just some of the prominent artists and luminaries whose works have been featured at the historic South Side Community Art Center in Chicago. A city landmark for eight decades, and an official Chicago Historic Landmark since June 1994, the center touts a rich legacy, one directly tied to the plight of African American residents of Chicago’s famous Bronzeville neighborhood and surrounding communities.
Upon American involvement in World War I, the Great Migration was launched and, by 1919, some one million African Americans had left the South for industrializing, labor-thirsty areas in the North and Midwest given the country’s wartime curbing of European immigration. African Americans in rapidly growing cities like Chicago faced a host of daunting challenges including racism, segregation, overcrowded tenements, housing discrimination, and a wave of race riots. In this tense environment, the need for cultural outlets was never more prominent as south side communities began envisioning an artistic hub that would forever change the city.
By the mid-1930s, still reeling from the impact of the Great Depression, several artists and activists, including Dr. Margaret Taylor Burroughs, advocated for an art center to serve the South Side community. Buoyed by the 1935 establishment of the Works Progress Administration and their Federal Art Project—and by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s championing of this New Deal initiative—funds were raised for a potential location through pledge drives, organizational sponsorships, art exhibitions, and other activities.
These efforts would pay off and, in 1941, the South Side Community Art Center opened in a three-and-a-half story, classical revival style home at 3831 South Michigan Avenue. The May 7 opening ceremony was covered by all major local and national media and the dedication speech was delivered by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Since its dedication, the center has consistently showcased both emerging and established African American artists while offering exhibits, courses, and other art education programming to Chicago residents.
The South Side Community Art Center remains the only center initiated by the Works Progress Administration still operating in its original building.
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