New City: The Revolution Starts Here: Chicagoans Imagining a More Just Art World
Months of protests following the latest wave of police murders and major disruptions due to the pandemic have led to renewed calls for structural change in the art world. Institutions large and small are asked for greater transparency, for real equity. Teen groups are asking museums to divest from relationships with police. Students are demanding schools hire more BIPOC faculty to teach courses that aren’t white-centric. In Chicago, many cultural workers, collectives and organizations already operate in radically equitable ways. In their own words, folks from Arts of Life, Temporary Services, the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Project and Black Futures talk about the ways they are building the world they want to see. These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Founded in 2000, Arts of Life is a vibrant creative community for working artists with disabilities. Each artist, working across two locations, has their own studio space, receives a monthly stipend and other support for their practice, and has an equal say in decision-making. Art director Vincent Uribe talks about the nonprofit’s democratic, person-centered approach.
While I was in my second year at SAIC, a live-work space fell under my control and I started LVL3, an artist-run gallery in Wicker Park. The mission is to expand our community by incorporating Chicago-based artists with artists from around the country. A friend of mine knew I was looking for a job after I graduated and was like, “I just came across this post, Arts of Life.” It was a mile-and-a-half from LVL3 and I was like, “How have I never heard about this organization?”
I started working at Arts of Life as their arts coordinator, helping manage their Chicago studio artists’ work: archiving, facilitating sales, getting exhibitions and everything in between.
How we’re set up: the front half we have a gallery space that’s about 500 square feet. Behind that, there’s a huge, open studio space where we support around thirty artists who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. The program is designed to support their professional development as working artists.
My passion and interest came from wanting people to know that Arts of Life was here. I was trying to get our Chicago studio artists’ work out into the community as much as possible.
We developed a partnership program where I would match [outside] artists that wanted to get involved with an artist from our studio and they would work collaboratively and mentor each other. It was being able to work with another person and develop a relationship, having a productive experience where they both would benefit.
My role now, as art director, is to push our exhibition programming and our public-facing interactions. When I started, both of our studios had a gallery space, but there was no official gallery programming. That was a big goal of mine because I wanted to invite the public in more regularly. I want the studio artist’s work to be recognized as contemporary artwork and not have somebody look at it and like it because it’s made by somebody who has a disability. The work stands on its own. We relaunched both galleries a couple years ago and branded them as Circle Contemporary.
We work on this collective decision-making model. All the artists have a say in everything that goes on. That’s one of the things that makes Arts of Life maybe more unique than other arts programs for people with disabilities. The autonomy for the studio artists is really present. Illinois is unfortunately consistently ranked in the bottom five in the country for people with disabilities, with funding. Arts of Life is a progressive studio, but we’re a black sheep in the larger sector.
For us, having that collective decision-making is really valuable. Everyone is able to share their opinion and you don’t have to be afraid of expressing a concern or voicing something, because it’s going to be taken productively. That can definitely translate in the art world as a whole, anything from applying to an art fair or showing in an exhibition or going to an opening and not feeling like you belong there. Transparency is valuable.