Artists and curators spend a great deal of time obsessing over the various relationships between the artwork, the audience, and the artist. They mull over questions like: Does the exhibition enhance or diminish the meaning of the artwork? What was the intention of the artist? Is the painting hung too high? Too low? Is it properly lit? How much didactic information can the audience digest? Do the artist’s materials communicate effectively? Is the scale right? Has the artist taken into consideration the socioeconomic context of the work? and more.
During my ten years as Director of Exhibitions and Events at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the connection between the artwork, the audience, and the artist opened to reveal an abyss on the scale of the Bermuda Triangle. For instance, when Chicago aldermen came over to the school from City Hall to remove an "offensive" painting of recently deceased Mayor Harold Washington from display or when 2,000 people marched down Michigan Avenue to protest the exhibition of a student’s artwork that included an American flag resting on the floor of “my” gallery, the game changed, and that gap widened. Sometimes there are moments in life after which nothing is the same.
Simply put, there was no way that I could continue to muster the same enthusiasm for art-world discussions that failed to acknowledge the rest of the world.
While some of my colleagues embarked on a path to enlarge the School’s conversation by establishing an international context, I looked locally. Chicago is an absolutely amazing city. Our urban environment is layered with histories that encompass the globe, stories that are brutally destructive and monumentally productive; I realized that in my experience as an artist and curator at SAIC, I had learned little if anything about Chicago and the people who make it work.
For the past fifteen years, I’ve worked throughout Chicago in neighborhoods that most artists have never seen. As executive director of archi-treasures, an arts-based community development organization, I’ve expanded my role as curator to include partnering artists and other creative professionals with community groups to make something happen, mostly in local public spaces where that “something” can be shared. Collaborations between artists, architects, and community groups address urban issues such as the preponderance of trash-filled vacant lots in poor areas of the city, tensions between diverse groups of people in rapidly gentrifying areas, and streets that have been claimed by gang violence and other criminal activity.
Processes and strategies for community participation are constantly evolving, and archi-treasures has experimented with many. Our design/build projects involve residents in reimagining the physical space they share on a daily basis—whether it’s a garden or the lobby of a building. For our Humboldt Park Mural Art Program, we partnered with MIT professor Ceasar McDowell using his Critical Moments Reflection Methodology to articulate the shared experiences of community groups. Our civic engagement projects map communities, excavate histories, and collect stories to produce movies, tours, resource books, websites and more.
Since 1996 when archi-treasures was founded, we have:
• served 26 Chicago community areas
• facilitated 82 design charettes
• completed 95 community projects
• hired 180 project artists
• employed 865 youth
• deployed 1,940 volunteers
In fact, 30 percent of all Chicagoans live within one mile of an archi-treasures project.
I don’t believe that I’ve dismissed the sort of critical investigations and discourse outlined above, but rather, I’ve embraced this creative investigation as a process that can be opened up to all. New participants not only broaden the conversation, by bringing information and experience that artists do not have, but they also can learn new skills themselves by working with artists—skills like critical thinking and problem solving. It’s so exciting to navigate the boundaries of class, race, and ethnicity that riddle the city while working to create, transform, and use all of the skills that I gained as an arts professional in places where that skill set and approach is largely absent. I love it.
Joyce Fernandes, Executive Director of archi-treasures since 1998, is a cultural worker whose career encompasses extensive experience in arts administration, lecturing, and teaching, critical writing, and visual arts practice. Her primary focus has been to develop innovative community arts practices. As Executive Director of archi-treasures, she works hard to facilitate strong community partnerships by recognizing and honoring the tremendous assets and resources that are available in all communities, and designing creative projects that leverage and complement those assets. Fernandes is also the former Director of Exhibitions and Events and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (1983–93), and the former Program Director at Sculpture Chicago (1995–97.) She received her MFA from the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago and her BFA from Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia.
Written in Spring 2012.