Over the past year, AREA Chicago’s advisory board has been discussing how to adapt and change our basic organizational structure. Starting in June we will be testing a division of responsibilities among a larger core group while we also maintain and expand the role of volunteers. In order to get to this point, AREA’s advisors and friends had to face the possibility that AREA would come to an end: the old structure could no longer be sustained. As we undertook this process we became interested in starting a conversation about what happens when it’s time for institutions to come to an end. When, why, and how do they do it? Alternatively: how do they decide to change, adapt, or recommit? To start off this conversation we asked Faheem Majeed, Acting Executive Director of the South Side Community Art Center, to talk about his recent exhibition project, “The Demise of the South Side Community Art Center,” which asked artists, audiences, and community members to imagine the end of the Center’s existence—as a way to reinvigorate it and address long-standing issues. (Full disclosure: AREA’s most recent issue release, in November 2009, took place at the closing event of the Demise show.)—Rebecca Zorach
When I was looking at doing a thesis project focused on the SSCAC, there was a lot of love and anger at the same time, about the burdens—crosses for lack of a better word—that I had to bear within the institution of the South Side Community Art Center. I had started doing conceptual work with the institution as the subject of the work—I would take things out of the building, re-present them in different ways, shoot video of me setting up the space, or switching things around, things that were administrative work, day-to-day work, framing them as actual performances. I was addressing generational issues that are within the organization. And thinking about these issues I realized that I had to destroy the institution. It was a love and a lashing out. And also a realization that people need to take responsibility. Everyone that I know knows this space. So it didn’t really make sense why it wasn’t getting the attention it deserved, it wasn’t getting the resources it deserved, why people weren’t taking up this banner, this fight.
The idea was to take it away, or to pose the threat of taking it away, with the thought that then people would value it more. So that’s when I came up with the idea of the “Demise of the South Side Community Art Center.”
The intent of the exhibition was to bring a group of artists into the space to discuss these two questions: “what is the role of a culturally-specific institution in changing today’s society?” and “what is to be lost and gained from destruction?”—destroying, or taking things apart. I posed these two questions, and reached out to artists I had come across in my travels—some of them were artists that had been involved with the center for thirteen or so years, some were new artists who had just come through the door a month before, others were dealing with similar issues in other communities. We had a really charged two-hour conversation: we had a moderator, and I stepped back and became an artist. From that, we came up with the topics of the show, and artists were supposed to create or bring things in based on the conversation we’d had. There were installations, sculptures or paintings in response to the conversation, and a series of performances.
The night of the opening, a lot of the board members became concerned that I was allowing people to go into the basement. This is a big deal for them. For Samantha Hill’s piece, she interviewed a board member who was a former director, Doug Williams. And Doug is a beautiful storyteller. He’ll suck you in and you’ll be there all day listening to him tell a story. She recorded him talking about the space, talking about the basement, talking about living in the basement at one point, talking about Marion Perkins and Gordon Parks and all these individuals who used to frequent the basement. And Samantha put it next to the state it is now, with the intention to draw attention to the space, a call for help, or to say, “hey, these are some issues than can be easily fixed.” It was a very beautiful piece, it was piped into these old radios, down in the basement, and the sound would come in and out—”…I remember back in the seventies… psshhhhh….” It was serene, it was haunting. Beautiful, if you just sat down there.
But, talk about your unwritten rules. That was something I was not supposed to do. It’s like going into your grandmother’s house: you know there are certain places you don’t let company see. But for me it’s all about questioning those things. Those things aren’t written down. So let’s draw attention to the lack of a policy. If these are going to be rules we need to start setting policies on the things that we do.
For some people, running the institution is about always putting the positive image forward—always wearing the suit. I just have a different strategy. When I bring funders in I bring them to places like the basement—the most vulnerable parts of the institution. At the same time I show them the value of fixing those vulnerable parts. Different people have different ways of doing things, and that’s where the clash happens. Some people say, “you project success, and then things happen.” I don’t have a problem saying we are successful in these areas, but then this is something we want to fix. What happens when those things are brushed away or hidden? They never get addressed because there’s no attention drawn to them, so then they get worse. And that’s something that happens not only in this institution but in a lot of institutions.
So, some of the feedback! I’m still bearing the repercussions of some of those decisions. The intent was to create an institutional mirror on the organization but also on the community—whatever that means. We throw that word out there. South Side Community Art Center: who is the community of the SSCAC? Has it changed, is it the same?
Let me say this: I love the members of my board. They have loved and supported the Center, some for more years than I have been alive. They are a working board and have kept the Center open and operating when there was very little support. They do the best they can with an overwhelming amount of work that needs to get done. Before they hired me for this role, they ran the institution. And just like all families, we love one another, and sometimes we agree and sometimes we disagree. They see the Center from one perspective—as a part of their history, their legacy, and I see it from another—as an artist-administrator who sees the opportunities change can bring.
So there was a clash. I was very upfront about what I was doing the night of the opening, but…people were a little miffed. They said, “I don’t want people in the basement. It’s not a good place for them to be.” And I had to stand fast, and say “No, that’s the piece. That’s how it’s going to be. It’s my show, and we’ve never censored artists.” Never, no matter how dramatic it was.
The next day I have all these meetings with the board. I knew what was going to happen: it was part of the performance. I was trying to stir the pot, get people excited about the space. So people were saying things like “the community’s upset.”
And yes, I had gotten emails from people saying “what’s the deal with this Demise, what are you trying to say, has the building burned down?” I had sent out flyers with a black and white image of the building on fire, and handed them out like handbills, and I sent them out to students, and said print them off and just hand them out. It created a platform for conversation; it brought a lot of interest into the space. We easily had 300-400 people over the course of a month.
So the exhibition raised questions like “what is community?” I heard from the board: “The community’s upset, they’re really mad.” But the community’s in the space—they’ve been in the space. What community are you talking about? You mean the people three, four blocks away? They’re not in the space now and they weren’t in the space before. One of the things that we talked about was how do we reach out to that community and is that a community we want to reach out to? Or are you talking about the artist community? There’s a lot of different artist communities. Are you talking about the upper crust of the black community—that used to frequent this space? Or are you talking about your immediate circle?
It was even said by a board member at one point: “I don’ t know who I’m talking to. It feels like you’re performing right now.” They said, “I can’t tell if you’re being an artist right now or an administrator.” It was a really good moment. I just laughed and said Man, I don’t know either. This is a place where it’s kind of weird: I’m the artist, but I’m also the institution.
So it definitely created some dissension. Which I still deal with today. I still stand by my practice and what I did: We had prolific programs as part of the show. Angela Jackson did her first book, and Carolyn Rodgers came and read poetry. It was packed, like 80 people in the room on a Wednesday night. Which is unheard of in this space. Barbara Jones-Hogu showed her first print in twenty-five years. The spirit of rebellion and revolution was alive in the space. Looking back at a lot of the practices that were done back in the sixties and seventies, I like to bring them into my practice; I sometimes feel like I grew up in the wrong decade.
But I think the institution needs to move forward, and that’s the question—am I projecting what I think the institution needs rather than listening to what the institution wants? And from listening, the Demise show is what I came up with. It was an artistic way of going about things. I don’t always do things that dramatically, obviously. A lot of this is about grantwriting, putting infrastructure into place. This was just the more glamorous way of showcasing these issues. And a lot of people gravitated toward it.
We invite further reflections on the life cycles of institutions. Does it sometimes make more sense for an institution to end than to keep going—even if it feasibly could keep going? Please add your thoughts in comments, or send them to email@example.com.
 Noted Black Arts Movement poet Carolyn Rodgers read with Angela Jackson on October 7, 2009 at the SSCAC. She died on April 2, 2010 at the age of 69.