Established 2004, Chicago Illinois
Project Onward was the third studio we visited in Chicago, located in the South Side neighborhood of Bridgeport; their stunning 13,000 square foot space includes an expansive studio and three galleries. Project Onward was founded in 2004 by Rob Lentz, Mark Jackson, and Colleen Sims, originally as a Gallery 37 program with only six artists. They quickly became recognized for the talented artists working in their studio and began serving artists throughout the city. In 2013, Lentz and Jackson relocated Project Onward to the Bridgeport Art Center after outgrowing a small studio and gallery space in The Chicago Cultural Center. After nine years as a Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs affiliated program, Project Onward became an independent non-profit that receives no state funding.
Project Onward’s philosophy and approach is distinct from other programs we’ve written about thus far. The key variance, in pragmatic terms, is that admission into the program is dependent on a portfolio review. This means that all of their artists had a creative practice of some kind prior to their involvement with the studio. Project Onward implements this model very successfully and is one of only three programs (that we’re aware of) operating this way. Most programs have basic criteria for the admission of artists; generally, they require some interest in art-making. Project Onward looks not only for interest, but commitment to an established creative practice. As service providers, most progressive art studios are obliged to provide support to as many people as possible who may benefit from their model - the goal is to facilitate individuals with creative tendencies and interests in developing creative practices.
Project Onward’s engagement with its artists, however, is more comparable to that of a gallerist than a service provider, focusing on professional development, exhibition opportunities, and marketing support. For the past year the studio has been completely independent from the task of human services (including Medicaid Waiver funding); thus far they’ve been quite successful in art sales, achieving visibility, and fundraising. They also received a seed grant which covered all costs for the first year. When seeking private donations, they emphasize the promise of supporting artists to create high quality artwork. For the future, their goal is to pursue business partnerships, new revenue streams, and foster opportunities for their artists that extend beyond the studio - residencies, teaching artists, etc.
In our conversation with Artistic Director Rob Lentz, he asserted that Project Onward’s role isn’t compatible with day habilitation. The incredible work created by artists at Project Onward makes a very strong case for the power of this model. Walking through their galleries, it’s undeniable that a high standard of excellence is present (during our visit work was on view by Michael Bryant, Adam Hines, and Sereno “Glitterman” Wilson), which results in the ideal environment and culture that progressive art studios should strive for. The most important insight to be gained by other studios from Project Onward is the importance of ambition and rigorous criticism, if not in admission process then certainly in facilitation methods.
In defense of service provision in the progressive art studio (the ambition to inspire new artists with disabilities to develop creative practices), it should be noted that there are many great artists who would have no studio practice in the absence of initial support and guidance in the studio. Judith Scott, arguably the most successful artist to emerge from a progressive art studio, didn't have one prior to her involvement with Creative Growth (or an interest in fiber art), until she participated in a fiber art workshop at their studio.
Artists from the studio have shown previously at Judy Saslow Gallery and Intuit: Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, among other venues. Recent achievements at Project Onward include the installation of an Andrew Hall piece at the 47th Street Red Line Station in February. Hall was commissioned by the Chicago Transit Authority to create a public work for the station after his proposal was chosen over hundreds of other artists in a competitive selection process.
Project Onward hosts new exhibitions every six weeks - the current exhibitions on view are Small Wonders through April 11 and Master Builders, a “collection of meticulous blueprints, detailed models, and uncanny drawings of architectural landmarks”, through May 9.