The WPA arts and local history programs were based in a strategy of developing culture as part of efforts to help restore the nation's economy. Democratizing the benefits of the arts by encouraging the participation of all citizens was the rationale for WPA-affiliated arts centers.
Although the federal government stimulated the establishment of the South Side Community Art Center, it was the efforts of the community that brought these efforts to fruition. The federal government provided the funds for the remodeling of the center's building and administrative funds for staff and faculty. The community had to pay for the lease and purchase of the building, for utilities, and for art supplies. At the time of Depression this was especially difficult for poor communities.
A South Side businessman, Golden B. Darby, oversaw the fund-raising operation, establishing a committee to obtain the required capital and to find an acceptable location. The first meeting of the committee was held on October 25, 1938. Other organizations and businesses were involved in its establishment: the meeting was held at the Urban League's branch office. In attendance were the state director and an official of the Illinois's Federal Art Project, the latter also an art dealer who invited black artists to exhibit in his North Michigan Avenue gallery in downtown Chicago.
Also in attendance were members of the Arts Craft Guild, which had been organized in 1932 and "was the only active group of African American visual artists in the community." The Guild's membership included Margaret Taylor, Eldzier Cortor, Bernard Goss, Charles White, William Carter, Joseph Kersey, and Archibald Motley, Jr.
Fundraising for the effort involved three years of activity, including "theater performances, card parties, a 'Mile of Dimes' street-corner campaign, lectures and exhibitions held in churches, community centers, schools and clubhouses." The most successful event was the Artists' and Models' Ball held on October 23, 1939 at the Savoy Ballroom. This single event raised the funds to acquire the building for the future Center.
Proposals for the design of the community center were received from Hin Bredendieck and Nathan Lerner, "two leading figures from the New Bauhaus School of Design established in Chicago in 1937." Bauhaus is the common term for the Staatliches Bauhaus, an art and architecture school in Germany that operated from 1919 to 1933, and for the approach to design that it developed and taught. The most natural meaning for its name (related to the German verb for "build") is Architecture House. Bauhaus style became one of the most influential currents in Modernist architecture. The interior of the center fused European and American design principles, and provides today one of the few remaining remnants of this style. WPA craftsmen constructed furniture for the building.
The South Side Community Art Center opened in December, 1940, with a show of well-known local painters and sculptors: Henry Avery, William Carter, Charles White, Archibald Motley, Jr., Joseph Kersey, Margaret and Bernard Goss, William McBride, among others. Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated it in May, 1941 in a ceremony that was broadcast nationally via the Columbia Broadcasting Radio System network. Celebrities attending included actress Ethel Waters and Howard University professor (and Harlem Renaissance leader) Alain Locke. A Cleveland choir provided the music via a radio link-up.
Federal support for the Center shrunk as the nation involved itself in World War II, and by 1943 all federal support had ceased. Although this resulted in the loss of some administrative staff, the center continued to offer programs, funded by well-to-do supporters and events such as the annual ball. European trained, African-American artist Rex Goreleigh took over as administrative director in 1944.
The Center held classes in drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography and crafts. It went beyond the visual arts and offered literary and performing arts programs, as well. Its writers' forum involved Willard Motley, Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks at various times, and the Nat "King" Cole trio played at the center on occasional Saturday nights.
By the late 1950s, the Center was "barely intact." Artists again joined, and shows were held, "the only place in Chicago were minority artists could regularly exhibit." By the early 1960s, the efforts of Sylvester Britton and Ramon Price, whose work had been nurtured by the Center when they were youngsters, lead to the revitalization of the Center, aided by the revival of the Artists' and Models' Ball. Three women were especially responsible for the revival of the Center: Wilhelmina Blanks, Fern Gayden and Grace Thompson. They took over many of the bills of the center, donating money of their own. They sought support from the Johnson Publishing Company, a major Chicago African-American media firm, and added an executive of the company, Herbert Nipson, as board chair. Community artists were asked to submit works to an auction that became an important source of funds for the Center, as well as a means of advertising the works to the Chicago arts community.
In the early 1980s, a debate ensued between some board members, who wished to move from the neighborhood that was now in decline, and members of the community. As a result of the reaction of the community against relocation, the center stayed where it had been.
Over the years, the Center has acquired an impressive collection of works by African-American artists, the most valuable being those from the WPA era such as Charles White, Henry Avery, Archibald Motley, Jr. and Marian Perkins. Many of these artists trained at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and they incorporated a variety of styles in their works, including European, Asian, Mexican muralists, while adding their own Chicago and Midwestern perspective.
Currently the South Side Community Art Center continues to act as a resource for the arts community locally and abroad. As the oldest African American Art Center in existence it takes pride in its past and present contributions to the development and showcasing of emerging and established artists.
Anna M. Tyler, "Planting and Maintaining a 'Perennial Garden,' Chicago's South Side Community Art Center" in INTERNATIONAL REVIEW OF AFRICAN AMERICAN ART (11:4), 1994