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Culture Mon Mar 31 2014
Chicago's vibrant and diverse arts scene is undeniable; from theater to visual art to dance and beyond, the city boasts something for everyone, from all artistic walks of life.
Looking South of Roosevelt Road, a whole other cultural collective is firmly intact with venues including the South Side Community Art Center (SSAC), DuSable Museum of African-American History, Gallery Guichard, the Harold Washington Cultural Center and the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, all off whom, in their respective right, serve as an integral part of the city's arts community.
For Heather Ireland Robinson, the new executive director of the Beverly Arts Center located in the Beverly/Morgan Park neighborhood, Chicago's arts and culture environment is simply part of her roots. "It's in my blood, said Robinson. "I love the arts in Chicago."
Robinson came on board the Beverly Arts Center in February; recently, I sat down with her to talk about her new position, support for the arts on the city's South Side, and her vision for the future of the BAC.
For you, your position at Beverly Arts Center marks sort of a return to the neighborhood. How does it feel?
It feels great. I was born and raised on the south side and I went to grammar school at Morgan Park Academy until the fifth grade. My first theater and art class was at the "old" Beverly Arts Center which was on the campus of Morgan Park Academy, so really the beginning of my art career started right here. It's amazing to be back.
You have a very diverse artistic background--when did you first become interested in the arts?
Well theater's always been my thing, but if you want to go there, I started in my parents' living room when they would let us put on shows for the insurance man! My godsister and I would make up these elaborate shows with my brother. It's a funny story but it also speaks to parents about how important it is to let your kids be creative. Now I can't say how good the shows were, but it was fun! And that just kind of has always been a part of who I am. I didn't study theater in undergrad--I studied it in graduate school. I finished my undergraduate education and my mother said I got off the graduation stage and said, "Well I don't want to study that [advertising]." My parents told me that was fine, but if you're gonna be an actor, don't just be a starving artist.
So you are a strong advocate for parents allowing their children to tap into their creative side...
I tell parents all the time, "If your kid is interested in something in the arts, let them go full force or else they'll be a frustrated lawyer or a pissed off dentist." They may not even become artists. So after studying theater, I realized I wanted to be able to create opportunities for other people to do it--through teaching and through administration--and that's really been the through line of my career.
Before coming on board at Beverly Arts Center, for two years, you were the executive director of the South Side Community Art Center which is located in the city's Bronzeville area. What was your time like at that facility?
When I left the South Side Community Arts Center, I said that I left a little bit of my heart and soul there. I really did. Culturally, I think that's obvious and that art center was about Bronzeville--it was about African-American artists from when it was founded in 1940 to today. You have to ask, how do we give artists of color an opportunity and a voice where they may not have one? Here, you could say the same thing, but it's about having creative offerings for everyone. That is always a part of what I do and it's always a part of what I think should be in an arts school or in arts center anyway, but over there, it was just more concentrated and much more specific, especially with that kind of history, with artists like Charles White, Elizabeth Catlett, Archibald Motley and Gordon Parks having come through that space. Also, part of my job was a PR campaign for the Bronzeville neighborhood, talking about how important the space is to African-American history, to art history, to Chicago's history and to our country's history. That was more the story there.
When it comes to Chicago's arts and culture scene, for many, the perception--or the reality--is that events held at venues on the south side are not always as recognized as their north side or downtown counterparts. What are your thoughts?
It's true. I think when you hear about the Loop, you see a greater concentration of theaters and also, you see a greater concentration of theaters and galleries on the north side. It's just a fact. Why that is--I don't know. But I can't say that though without talking about the five galleries that are in Bronzeville that are all connected. I think a lot of times it's hand-to-mouth all the time and this is more so on the south side. I think it's about us tooting our own horns, telling our stories and recognizing in ourselves, that we're just as important. Again, you might not have as much density on the south side, but they're here. It's about us saying, "Hey, we're here. Buy a ticket. Come see our shows."
Speaking of location, there is, of course, an 'elephant in the room' when it comes to attending a show or holding an event on the south side. For folks who might want to patronize the Beverly Arts Center but are reluctant to do so because of the reported violence, among other things, how would you respond to them?
Having grown up on "the far south side" there's just a geographical thing. I always tell people that there is just that mental leap people have to make. I think we have to have things here that draw people. This neighborhood alone is extremely diverse in who lives here but I won't lie and say there are not some old thoughts and behaviors that come out. That has nothing to do with what's going on with this part of 111th and Western.
For many though, the stigma about the city's South Side is very pervasive; in terms of attracting new visitors, in what ways do you think this mindset can be changed?
Well, there may be some historical holdovers that you feel but again, I want to talk about the word "perception." You don't feel like you can go certain places. You don't feel welcome. Well, that's my job. My job is to not only make the place look like an arts center--let's create programming that's going to draw [people in]. We can't just say, "Oh, you need to come!" How do we keep reaching out? How am I inviting you? But not just inviting you but including you in the conversation about what kind of programming is going on.
At the recent SXSW conference, Mayor Emanuel spoke about the city, promoting it as a "musical and cultural force." In your own words, what makes this so?
All the culture that has come out of Chicago--the city is a rich landscape for the development and promotion of the arts. There is blues, jazz and all these things that have gone on here and continue to go on. I'm proud of Rahm for saying that, but I'm not really surprised that he said it, especially with his ballet background and his brother being a producer out in L.A. And also, God bless Michelle Boone, our city's Cultural Affairs Commissioner.
As you know, Chicago's arts and culture scene is endlessly compared to New York's--how do you feel about this comparison?
I like [us as] the "Third coast." I like who we are. I like the Midwestern hardworking mentality. I think we're different. But I'm happy for my art friends who go to Los Angeles or New York because they're looking for something different whether it's writing painting teaching or whatever. I like us being sort of a "hub," though.
What is your favorite part about Chicago's artistic community?
If this is a fair answer, I just love the diversity because there are so many things to choose from. If I decide I don't ever like theater ever again, I'll still be okay, going to the museums or seeing visual art. If I decide I don't want to create or I just want to watch, I can do that here. There are so many possibilities from the creator to the audience member to the casual dabbler of the arts. You're not going to want for anything here.
Looking ahead, what is your vision for BAC? What can patrons expect?
I want the staff to remain energized and dedicated and I want there to be diverse program offerings and exciting things. If you like to hang by yourself, come on in; or, if it's "date night," girls' night out, family night--from a gallery to a theater to classes and events--it' s all here. One thing we like to say, is "Find your place at the Beverly Arts Center"; so keep the arts alive in your home, within yourself and within your children and visit the BAC!
For more information on shows, events and programming at the Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111th St., visit the website or call 773-445-3838.