Why Arts on Chicago matters

On November 13, at an event at the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center with other Artplace grant recipients and Mayor RT Rybak, our co-Artistic Director Noel Raymond made the following remarks. We want you to read them.

Hi I am Noel Raymond Co-Artistic Director of Pillsbury House + Theatre. I have been working at PH+T since 1995 – I was hired originally on a grant to use theatre to help women (who were on what was at that time called ‘welfare’) move into the workforce, to help chronically truant teens succeed in school and to help adults with developmental disabilities build social skills – oh, and to make professional theatre that provokes, disturbs and motivates…

Fast forward 13 years and, in late 2008, I find myself, along with my co-director Faye Price in charge of not only the theatre related stuff but also all of the social service programs of Pillsbury House Neighborhood Center – a daycare center, homeless youth services, HIV education, tax preparation – and lots more. In my 17+ many years making theatre inside the neighborhood center, I had seen the arts make a difference in daily, incremental tiny ways as well as in life-altering, sea-changing profound ways over and over again…which is why Faye and I set out to integrate the arts and creative practice into everything that happens at PH+T – and it is why we believe so strongly in the ArtPlace goal of using the arts to build vibrant communities.

In our current work, we’re building on ideas from the ground-breaking research done by people like Susan Seifert and Mark Stern, and Minnesota’s own Ann Markusen – showing that lots of benefits accrue to communities that have high concentrations of artists and artistic activity – benefits that actually help ameliorate the negative impacts of persistent racism, crime and poverty – and we are trying to create the conditions that the research shows produce these benefits.

And the good news is – we don’t have too far to go – this neighborhood is full of artists, arts businesses and creative community building activity. Our role now is to knit together, highlight and support these creative assets while making sure that everyone has a way to get involved and lend their voice to the conversation. We’ve started by stitching together this Arts on Chicago partnership with Upstream Arts, Powderhorn Park Neighborhood Association, artist Natasha Pestich and with the support of the Council Office of Elizabeth Glidden. Together, we have just finished selecting the second half of the twenty projects we will be implementing as part of our ArtPlace “Arts on Chicago” project. All of the projects will be done by people who live or work in this neighborhood. Two examples include – A photography project by Wing Young Huie who will be introducing neighbors to one another by photographing them together and then exhibiting 100 of these photos which will also include text in 10 businesses along the corridor with public openings for each. And Molly Van Avery’s Poetry Mobile project – Molly will be building a writing desk on wheels with the help of the homeless youth from Full Cycle Bike Shop. She will then travel the neighborhood writing 3000 poems with neighbors and mail them to all 3000 households in Powderhorn.

So, last week my son had to write a persuasive essay for his 10th grade English class – he chose to write about why arts should receive public funding (yay!) – he came and asked me for my opinion and I initially had lots of my usual responses about how the arts stimulate economic activity, build individual skills, bring people together, create a space for civic dialogue, bridge differences… – but his question inspired me to reflect on a really personal level about what it is during my 17 years of working at PHT and making theatre in this community that is so powerful and necessary and unique – and, for me, it is the act of imagining – being able to dream up – with other people – something that never existed before – really see it and then, together, make it come into being. There will be lots of opportunities through the Arts on Chicago project to do just this – from something as simple as the 5 bicycle racks that artist Kelly Brazil will make from repurposed materials to the handmade signs that Peter Haakon Thompson will make with neighbors to connect people and identify who lives here. We are actually standing in front of one of the AOC projects right now – And, so I’d like to introduce you to Heather Doyle the artist leading this project and the director of the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center.

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