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South Side Art Center Celebrates 75th Birthday

Norman Parish | 12/23/2015, 10:51 a.m.
Masequa Myers loved singing and dancing as a teen – she even briefly sang in a group with superstar Chaka ...
The South Side Community Art Center in Chicago, 3831 S. Michigan Ave., is celebrating its 75th anniversary.

Masequa Myers loved singing and dancing as a teen – she even briefly sang in a group with superstar Chaka Khan. So, in the 1960s, Myers decided to learn more about the arts by taking classes at the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago.

“I had some fabulous mentors,” recalled Myers, who pointed out the late artist Margaret Burroughs as a role model.

 Myers, who went on to produce documentary films, is now helping local youth learn more about the arts as the center’s executive director.

The South Side Community Art Center in Chicago.

The South Side Community Art Center in Chicago.

 On Sunday, Myers and dozens of others celebrated the 75th anniversary of the iconic center at 3831 S. Michigan Ave, where a variety of arts and crafts and jewelry were exhibited. Panel discussions on the arts were also held.

 The event kicked off a yearlong celebration of the center.

“In addition to the birthday celebration, [the center] has planned a year-long exhibition and event calendar that includes the 51st Annual Art Auction on May 21st at the School of the Art Institute, the Artist & Models Ball in October . . .and the Gordon Parks Film Festival and these events are in addition to the full slate of artist exhibitions beginning in January,” Myers explained.

The center was founded in 1940 through President Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration (WPA), where the federal government employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in large arts, drama, media, and literacy projects.

 Of the 110 WPA centers, the art center is the only surviving one and is the oldest African American art center in the country.

 It served as one of the few sites in the city that allowed black artists to exhibit their work.

 The center also has attracted some of the nation’s most acclaimed African American artists.

 Photographer Gordon Parks had his first darkroom in the center’s basement, artists Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett shared what they learned from the Art Institute of Chicago with other artists who couldn’t afford to attend the school and poet Gwendolyn Brooks taught classes there.

 “It influenced me because I felt like I was home,” said sculptor Doug Williams, 77, who helped start what is now today the “Black Creativity” exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. “I took full advantage of what was there.”

 Williams took art classes at the facility in the 1950s while he was a student at Hyde Park High School and later while attending the Art Institute of Chicago. Eventually, he would teach at the center himself and become an artist in residence before now serving as a board member.

 Like Myers, he was impacted by Burroughs, the founder of the DuSable Museum and a founder of the South Side Art Center. She also lived across the street from the site.

 “[Borroughs] spoke to you as an individual,” Myers said. “She was the kind of person who could make you feel good as you are. . . This was a place you could be affirmed.”

 In recent years, the center has struggled. When Myers took over as head of the facility about 15 months ago, there weren’t any classes. There were only exhibits.

 Now, the center offers fabric design classes and a teen workshop, which helps youths with public speaking, play script writing, acting and social activism.

“I wanted to bring life back into the building,” Myers said.

  “The South Side Community Art Center brings out the good in art and culture in the African American community,” Myers added. “That is what the South Side Art Center does. Once a young person is exposed to culture and art, they tend to not be filled with anger. .  . It is one way to deal with a depressed environment. We have become a wonderful refuge.”