From Empty Lot to Art Around the Block
It started with a vacant lot in Chicago’s Loop — an eyesore called Block 37 — on State Street. Old buildings had come down in the late 1980s, then developers ran out of cash.
“In those days, I was riding the bus to work,” recalls Cultural Affairs Commissioner Lois Weisberg, “and I would see these kids in the park, cleaning it up or just sitting there. That was the summer program, keeping them off the street, giving them jobs, and I thought: Why wouldn’t we teach them something instead of just this?”
Weisberg put her head together with Mayor Richard M. Daley and his wife, Maggie (now chair of Gallery 37’s board), and came up with a “collaborative” idea to put kids to work under tents in the empty lot. They would be paid minimum wage to learn about art.
Gallery 37 got off the ground in 1991 with 250 young people. Enlisting the talents of painters, sculptors, dancers, actors, photographers, writers and other arts professionals, the on-the-job training program quickly grew, moving into other downtown locations, to parks and neighborhood centers, and into Chicago public schools, funded by both public and private money.
In fall 1999 the program expanded into the Gallery 37 Center for the Arts at 66 E. Randolph St., a facility comprised of two buildings, purchased and renovated for $18 million, that now houses sleekly designed studios for dance, music, visual art, television broadcasting, video editing and computer graphic design. A joint enterprise of the Department of Cultural Affairs, City Colleges of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools, the center also has a small theater, a state-of-the-art kitchen, which Weisberg suggested be included because “cooking is an art,” and a retail store where students’ works are sold.
More than 4,000 Chicago youth, ages 14 to 21, are employed annually in Gallery 37’s on-the-job training program, which has been copied in nearly 30 cities in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Says Paula Martinez, a Chicago artist who teaches in the program, Gallery 37 not only helps students fine-tune their talent, but also helps “develop their egos and self-esteem.”
One of those students is Tynneal Grant, 21, who grew up in Wrigleyville on Chicago’s North Side and worked at Gallery 37 for three summers, painting tableware and furniture and doing artwork for Chicago Transit Authority buses. “How many kids do you know who can get a job at 14 or 15, doing something with their talents to make money? We had résumé workshops and business etiquette workshops,” says Grant, who works now with City Year, a national service organization, promoting literacy in “troubled” Chicago schools. “I got so much out of being at Gallery,” she adds.
Most importantly, emphasizes Weisberg, students who have been at Gallery 37 “have met other students outside of their own neighborhood, from other schools, from every ethnic and economic background,” and have recognized they are all “a part of the life of this great city.” — A.T.