South Side Community Art Center
The South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) was funded with dimes. During the Great Depression, the Federal Art Project, under the aegis of the unemployment-alleviating Works Progress Administration, set up more than 100 community art centers around the country to employ artists and make art available to neighborhoods through classes and exhibitions. The Federal Art Project would staff the centers, pay the teacher’s salaries, and handle operating costs, but the community itself had to provide the building.
Watch: South Side Community Art Center
A group of African American artists in Bronzeville, then the cultural heart of Chicago’s black community, banded together to raise funds to buy a building for the center so that the neighborhood would have a venue and home for its talented artists. Margaret Burroughs, an artist, writer, and poet who later co-founded the DuSable Museum of African American History, later recalled standing on the corner of 39th Street and South Parkway with a can collecting dimes to raise money.
Eventually the group bought a stately mansion at 3831 S. Michigan Avenue. The Federal Art Project renovated and remodeled it, and in 1941, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated the new center. “37th Street to 39th Street was crowded with community residents who came to catch a glimpse of our then-First Lady,” Burroughs recalled.
Learn more about the cultural renaissance on the South Side of Chicago of which SSCAC was a part.
From the beginning, the SSCAC has provided an exhibition space for African American artists who were often denied representation in Chicago’s galleries and museums; the first director of the center, Peter Pollack, was an exception in that he exhibited artists such as Burroughs and Bernard Goss at his downtown gallery. In the nearly eight decades since, the SSCAC has supported almost every luminary in Chicago’s African American arts community. Burroughs and her friend Gwendolyn Brooks found a home there. Famed photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks had a dark room in the basement. Painters Charles White, Archibald Motley Jr., and Charles Sebree all exhibited or taught there, as did sculptor Marion Perkins and printmaker Elizabeth Catlett. As Burroughs once put it, “Any black artist or writer who amounted to anything passed through the doors of this art center.”
Take a video tour of an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago spotlighting the work of Charles White.
In addition to offering classes and exhibitions, the SSCAC also houses an impressive collection of art. Named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation last year, it is the only Federal Art Project center that is still open.