Established 2000, Chicago Illinois
The second Chicago program we visited was The Arts of Life - a young, principled, and community-oriented program. They’re an independent studio, without a larger support organization, that was founded by artist Veronica Cucilich in 2000. It began as solely a visual arts studio with 12 individuals, but now has two locations in Chicago offering various kinds of support for their artists. Both locations focus primarily on Visual Art, but also offer Music; the North Shore Studio (in Glenview) has mainly part-time attendance and includes Performing Art, a “project-by-project collaboration between The Arts of Life artists and Chicago-based performance makers.”
During our visit to the Chicago Studio we were given an in-depth tour of the space by two of the program’s artists, Mike Marino and Frances Roberts. The building includes a small gallery space at the entrance, and large converted warehouse studio that includes workspace for painting and drawing, a printmaking press, storage space, and a kitchen break area. The space felt quite open; the artists moved freely throughout and engaged with each others’ work, conveying a real sense of ownership of the studio. Despite the bustling atmosphere, each workspace felt personal - artists surrounded by their ongoing projects didn’t seem to have trouble maintaining focus and developing a distinct creative practice in their respective sections of table space.
We spoke with then Studio Manager Caitlin Law and Development Coordinator Sara Bemer, two of only four paid staff (Studio Manager, Studio Coordinator, Arts Coordinator, and Volunteer Coordinator) working with 30 artists each day at this relatively large program location. There are also 3 full-time and 1 part-time office staff (Executive Director, Development Manager, Development Coordinator, and Executive Coordinator) that split their time between the Chicago Studio and North Shore Studio in Glenview. The program uses a substantial, constantly fluctuating team of interns and volunteers who provide support in all aspects of the program. This structure is the consequence of the program’s strong activist philosophy, or vise versa; in either case, their example provides important insight about the nature of utilizing volunteers in a progressive art studio.
Our conversation with Law and Bemer focused largely on philosophy; they expressed a passionate commitment to their artists receiving respect as professional fine artists and resist working with anyone who describes the artwork using sympathetic or inauthentic language, even if it means turning down opportunities or support.
The Arts of Life’s dedication to their philosophical ideas is integral to the program, because its structure demands constantly teaching new members of their community (volunteers, interns, artists, etc). There are generally 5-10 volunteers at a time, including vocational rehabilitation workers. Volunteers sometimes help with artist facilitation (aided by written instructions regarding materials and intended progression for each piece). Office staff are also required to work one day a week on the studio floor in order to stay informed and maintain communication. For them, perpetually building and maintaining this culture in the studio is a means to raise awareness and educate the outside community. In further support of these ideas, the daily operations of the studio are managed by an egalitarian “system of collective decision-making” in which all aspects, from structure, events, exhibitions, and studio maintenance, to choices regarding language are discussed and voted on in large group meetings in which all of the artists, volunteers, interns, and staff are given a voice.
In addition to hosting exhibitions in the Arts of Life gallery space, they strive to participate in the local scene frequently. Artist often participate in gallery visits, especially since the studio is located right near the West Loop Gallery District. Notably, work from artists at The Arts of Life has been included in shows at respected Chicago galleries such as Threewalls and Terrain Exhibitions, as well as various retail venues. Vincent Uribe, the Chicago Studio’s Arts Coordinator, has organized The Arts of Life Collaboration Program in which Chicago-based artists pair up with Arts of Life studio artists for a minimum of six months. Most recently, Tim Stone and Jean Wilson collaborated with Mike Paro and Noël Morical for the exhibition Four Corners, creating two site-specific installations for an alternative space, Terrain Exhibitions, from February 8 - March 3, 2015. Terrain was founded in 2011 by artist Sabina Ott and writer John Paulett.
One of The Arts of Life’s important ambitions for the future is to increase their fundraising revenue in order to be less dependent on government funding, which is particularly sparse in Chicago. It’s clear that fundraising with a genuine commitment to more progressive ideas is a greater challenge than organizations serving this population have faced in the past. Other programs we visited using regressive ideas to interest sympathetic donors raise incredible amounts of money at the expense of alienating the individuals they serve from the community. From a pragmatic point of view, this only has short-term value. It provides immediate funding for great programming and services, but in the long-term it only maintains the divide between this population and the community, while creating a patronizing culture within the organization. This will eventually undermine the programming and ultimately render no actual benefit. Encouraging donors to give in support of the potential and greatness of others proves to be a harder sell than appealing to the desire to enable a group portrayed as helpless. Programs we visited after the Arts of Life have demonstrated that it’s not impossible, so we hope to see this studio continue to promote progressive ideas with growing success.