Each of the 45 Core Members of the Chicago Cultural Alliance does important work to preserve, celebrate, and share a specific cultural tradition. Beyond this, though, many of them also serve as important anchors for their neighborhoods. They are much more than museums, archives, or galleries. They are serving their communities both inside their buildings and out in the public spaces of Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods.
While visiting OPEN Center for the Arts’ recent 8th anniversary party, it was exciting to see how important OPEN Center is to so many people. It is more than just a gallery or cultural center. It is an integral part of the Marshall Square and South Lawndale neighborhoods.
Founder and Executive Director Omar Magana addresses the crowd at OPEN Center for the Arts’ 8th Anniversary party. Photo courtesy of OPEN Center for the Arts
Another example of a Core Member that serves as a neighborhood anchor is the DANK Haus German American Cultural Center. It consistently works to balance its mission of sharing German heritage and history with outreach into the Lincoln Square neighborhood. Though DANK Haus may serve its community in slightly different ways than OPEN Center for the Arts, it is also a bedrock institution for its neighborhood.
To learn more about how each cultural center has developed such strong community ties, I interviewed Monica Jirak, Executive Director of DANK Haus, and Fernando Aburto, Development Manager of OPEN Center.
BEING A CULTURAL RESOURCE
Like all of the Core Members of the Chicago Cultural Alliance, DANK Haus and OPEN Center for the Arts provide vital cultural programming. By acting as a resource for cultural knowledge, traditions, and heritage, they serve their surrounding communities.
DANK Haus has seen the neighborhood around it change over time. “Back in the ‘70s was really the heyday of German culture in this neighborhood,” explains Monica. As German businesses in the area closed over the decades since then, DANK Haus has worked to document their history. “We want to preserve and promote their legacy,” Monica explains. “So it’s not forgotten and so that future generations can be reminded of what existed.” Their extensive archives preserve the history of the community, and their museum tells the story of Germans in Chicago.
Museum Director Rosa Gallagher surveys a portion of DANK Haus’ extensive collection of artifacts, documents, and records from the German American community. Photo by Marie Rowley
They also offer contemporary cultural programming, like German language classes, “Kaffee, Kuchen & Kino” (coffee, cakes, and a movie), and German cooking classes. Their goal is to share German culture with everyone. “I feel like with all of our programming it may help to know a little bit of German,” Monica explains “But really we want to be accessible and open and inviting to everyone in the neighborhood.”
Much of OPEN Center for the Arts’ cultural work is driven directly by the needs of their neighborhood. For example, several years ago parents from the nearby schools needed a space to host a Posada, a traditional Mexican Catholic Christmas event. OPEN Center agreed to organize the event, bringing together participants from across the community. “We had to stop people from coming in at one point, it was so packed,” Fernando recalls, smiling. Everyone on staff agreed this had to become an annual tradition, and they soon added Día de los Reyes and Candelaria celebrations. It’s clear OPEN Center’s holiday events have become an important neighborhood tradition; after a couple years with limited capacity due to COVID, community members are already asking if 2022’s festivities will be back in December.
OPEN Center’s COVID-safe “express” Día de Los Reyes event in January 2021. Photo courtesy of OPEN Center for the Arts
CONNECTING TO THEIR NEIGHBORHOODS
Despite having different origins, missions, and audiences, both organizations serve as strong neighborhood anchors through a mix of community outreach and creative cultural programming.
With a mission of being open to artists at all stages, OPEN Center for the Arts is actively engaged with the children of its community. “We have three schools within a block of us, and some of them do not have an art program,” Fernando explains. “We feel like we serve our community in this way.” One of their programs is Wild Marshall Square, where 4-6-year-olds learned about endangered species and then drew their own versions. Their artwork was then entered into an art show, with critiques and juries, just like their adult contemporaries. The winning drawings were made into sculptures, and displayed at Lincoln Park Zoo.
Winning polar bear sculptures from Wild Marshall Square project. Photo courtesy of OPEN Center for the Arts
DANK Haus connects with its neighborhood through creative programming too, though the audience might be slightly different. Taking advantage of the full working bars on premises, DANK Haus hosts regular “Neighborhood Nights,” with beer and a chance to meet your neighbors. Similarly, a recent popular event has been Elternabend, or “Parents’ Night Out,” which includes dinner, drinks, and (perhaps most importantly) childcare.
The Terrasse (terrace) at DANK Haus is a welcome space for events like Elternabend. Photo courtesy of DANK Haus.
Each center connects with their neighborhood through direct service and outreach as well.
“There are a number of ways we feel like we’re a part of Lincoln Square,” Monica explains. Through booths at neighborhood festivals like Maifest, Oktoberfest, and Apple Fest, DANK Haus is able to meet their neighbors face-to-face to talk about the organization and share in the community’s seasonal celebrations. They’re also an early voting site for the precinct, and they have a German-immersion preschool and kindergarten on premises.
DANK Haus staff at Maifest 2022. Photo courtesy of DANK Haus German American Cultural Center.
Fernando explains that they’ve become so strongly connected to their community through constant outreach. “One way we build those relationships is just being out there talking to people,” he says. “And another is being here every day that we can, so people in the neighborhood can come into the space.” Another connection Fernando points to is the Marshall Square Resource Network. “We are really grateful to be a part of MSRN,” he says. “We are really a network. We share resources with each other.”
OPEN Center staff ready to connect with their community at the Marshall Square Resource Network’s Education + Wellness Summit, May 2022. Photo courtesy of OPEN Center for the Arts.
CHALLENGES FOR SMALL COMMUNITY CENTERS
Both find that as small cultural centers, it can sometimes be hard to get people to come through the doors. Even with constant outreach, there are still people in their neighborhoods to connect with.
“We have been around for a very long time, and still sometimes people in the neighborhood are just learning about us,” Monica says. “But really that’s just an opportunity for us to open up our Haus even more to our neighbors.” One way they are doing this is by converting their first-floor space into the Trefftpunkt, a gallery and cafe space that will welcome passersby into the building and make them feel at home. One of DANK Haus’ core values is Gastfreundschaft, or hospitality, and they plan to put that into action in their new space, scheduled to open next year.
Fernando says they sometimes face the exact same issue. “We still have people 8 years later that walk into our space saying ‘I live 2 blocks away, how have I never seen this before?’” he says. For them, community outreach is key. After two years of being mostly closed to visitors due to the pandemic, their recent 8-year anniversary party kicked off their new slate of in-person programming and gallery events. They’re also working more on expanding their connections. “Since 2020 our connections with North Lawndale have gotten stronger and stronger,” he explains. “We realized we’re working on the same things, but we’re working on them separately. It used to be the South Lawndale this, the North Lawndale that – now we are coming together to host these events as one community, Lawndale.”
Bringing the community together for the Lawndale Peace Party in 2021. This summer the community is hosting a series of expanded events. Photo courtesy of OPEN Center for the Arts
VISIT THESE NEIGHBORHOOD CULTURAL ANCHORS
One of the best ways to get to know Chicago’s neighborhoods is by visiting one of the cultural centers that preserve their history and serve their communities. Check out all of the Core Members of the Chicago Cultural Alliance!
DANK Haus German American Cultural Center and OPEN Center for the Arts are always keeping busy. Drop by for a visit, or check out these upcoming events:
CCA Partner Member The Peace School is launching a photo campaign to celebrate the beauty of all people and cultures in the 77 Community Areas of Chicago, and they are asking their fellow Members of the Alliance for help! Their goal is to spread peace and love by getting to know and understand each other better as we support positive actions for peace. They thought of you because they want to promote people, groups and businesses that are making their neighborhood a better place to live. (That is DEFINITELY the Members of the Alliance!)
It is easy to participate! Go to a place you love in your community and take a photo with your message of peace. You’ll find details and sample photos below. Your photo will become part of the Peace in Chicago Call to Peace series on social media, featuring one Community Area each day.
Here’s an example from the Swedish American Museum of Chicago, who already submitted their photo, and Ben from the Chinese American Museum of Chicago is the cover image for this post!
Here’s how to participate:
· Make a sign that says: Peace in [community area]
· Take a photo with the sign – here are some samples and ideas:
Celebrate something positive in your community:
· Your photo location could be on your own block or in front of a park, community garden, museum, school, public mural, community center, shop, restaurant… pick a spot in your Community Area you’d like to highlight. (This is a great way to represent your own cultural center or museum if you’d like!)
· Your photo can include one person or you can gather your family, neighbors, coworkers or members of your local organization. Please make sure that everyone in the photo gives permission for the image to be shared (including parent or guardian of children).
· Your sign can be on a piece of paper or on a large poster. It can be simple or artistic. Keep in mind that you’ll want the sign’s message to show up well in your photo.
2. Important! Include a statement in your email giving us permission to share the photo on social media.
3. Feel free to send us your Instagram and FACEBOOK @ handle so we can tag you when it’s time for your photo to be posted in the series. Then please share!
4. You can also send us @ handles of other places in your Community Area you’d like us to tag.
It would mean a lot to have you participate in this special Peace in Chicago Call to Peace as we celebrate The Peace School’s 50th Anniversary in Chicago. Email Lydia Howe with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Together, let’s plant seeds of peace in Chicago and the world.
VIsiting the korean cultural center of chicago gallery
Their emphasis on using their Museum and Visual Arts Program to share both traditional Korean culture and contemporary artists was evident when our Collaborative Programs Coordinator Abby Foss visited the KCCoC recently. Abby visited the gallery in May to view the exhibition “Gyeol” by textile artist Hyelim Kim. Kim designed an avant garde collection created with both modern and traditional Korean textiles and techniques. Abby was lucky enough to meet with the artist herself, and to tour the gallery with the KCCoC’s Executive Director, Kay Kihwa Rho.
Hyelim Kim, Abby Foss, and Kay Kihwa Rho at Kim’s show “Gyeol.” Photo courtesy of Abby Foss.
Kim utilized a sewing technique, Kkaekki, which is a traditional style of seaming created for the Korean Hanbok, where fabric pieces are cut and pieced together in a way that resulted in beautifully thin and flat seams running throughout all of the garments. “As I walked around the space, the avant garde cuts, colors, and lines created by the Kkaekki technique gave a sense of movement, and the colors themselves shifted slightly as the light caught the different layers within the garments,” Abby said. “My favorite piece was a yellow and purple garment that Hyelim Kim explained had been inspired by the sunset.”
Learning More about the Korean cultural center of chicago’s visual arts program
Inspired by Abby’s visit to the Korean Cultural Center of Chicago’s museum and gallery, I wanted to learn more about how they curate their constantly changing exhibitions. I spoke with Gay-Young Cho, the Director of the Museum and Visual Arts Program at the KCCoC to learn more about the thought process behind their exhibitions and what is so unique about their program.
What is your professional background? How did you come to work for the Korean Cultural Center of Chicago?
My professional background is social psychology, specializing in organizational behavior. However, I have been involved with the art world for over 30 years as an art collector and as a volunteer in various capacities in numerous art institutions. I am a founding member of the Asian Art Council at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC, and was Vice President and Chair of Programming of the Asian Art Council Board at the Art Institute of Chicago. I serve on the Collections Committee of the Field Museum of Chicago. I assumed the role of the Director of Museum at the KCCoC as a volunteer.
Image courtesy of Gay-Young Cho
What kinds of artists do you work with or what kind of art do you look for when you are making your curatorial decisions?
One of the goals of our exhibition program is to promote Korean American artists, thereby we give preference to the Korean American artists working in the Midwest. The foremost criterion we are looking for in our exhibitions is excellence. But another criteria is the subject matter or the use of the material that relates to Korean culture, both traditional or contemporary.
Do you have a favorite exhibition that you worked on recently? If so, can you tell me what was special about it?
The exhibition, “FOUNDATION; Chosuk,” which was held on March 5, 2022. It was a group show of eight emerging Korean American artists who are recent graduates of the School of Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), curated by Dabin Ahn. “Chosuk” is the foundation stone that was widely used in Korean traditional architecture providing structural support for buildings ranging from small Hanok houses to the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty. Bringing together a group of emerging artists, FOUNDATION showcased how each artist structures their practice by employing Culture, Longing, Color, Identity, Process, Memory and Site-specificity as its foundation. There was some fabulous cutting edge art represented in the exhibition!
Guests view the artwork at the “FOUNDATION; Chosuk” exhibition. Photo courtesy of the Korean Cultural Center of Chicago
What do you want people to know about the Korean Cultural Center of Chicago, its museum, and its visual arts program?
Our museum and its visual arts program is “the little engine that could!” As a small museum, we have limited resources; we work with a very small budget and limited staff. The available budget does not match our ambition. Despite this, with our excellent exhibitions we are beginning to make our presence known both in the Korean community and the Chicago metropolitan area.
We also have an interesting collection of Korean cultural artifacts and arts in our museum, including a mock Korean traditional wedding set.
Can you tell me about the Harry Ahn show happening now? What is special about this show? Why would you recommend people come to see it?
When I made a visit to Harry Ahn’s studio, I was quite stunned and moved by his paintings of homeless people. Not only is Harry an amazing and accomplished portrait artist, but in his rendering of the homeless, we are called to recognize the worth and dignity of every human being, knowing that each has untold stories behind their homelessness. When asked why he focused his art on homeless people, Harry explains:
“A homeless wanderer on the street is an endless subject. I want to make people think about the many different ways ordinary people end up on the street. An artist can transform this outcast into a human being worthy of dignity and respect. I was that same homeless wanderer during the desolation right after the Korean War.“
A guest contemplates a painting by Harry Ahn. Photo courtesy of the Korean Cultural Center of Chicago
Ahn’s affinity for people who are struggling came from his own experiences as a refugee in Korea. He was born in North Korea, and was a young teen when the Korean War forced his family to flee to South Korea, leaving them destitute and homeless. In his art, the viewer can see that his remembrance of his refugee childhood has infused his art with both compassion and spirituality, and Harry seeks out the basic human value of each individual.
The exhibition, “I am not worthless, just homeless,” opened on June 3rd and will be showing through June 30th. The viewers will be moved to see what Harry saw in these homeless people.
Finally, what do you have coming up soon?
We are taking a summer break to focus on upgrading our collections and inventory system; we recently installed new collections management software, and are in the process of revamping our system to make our collections and exhibitions widely accessible online.
We are planning an exhibition, “Earthly Eloquence: Korean Contemporary ceramics.” This exhibition will be timed to coincide with the opening celebration of the Bisch Hall Performing Arts Theater, to be completed next year.
Another future exhibition we are exploring is art made with “hanji”, Korean paper.
Harry Ahn’s “I am not worthless, just homeless,” will be showing through June 30th at the Korean Cultural Center of Chicago Gallery, 9930 Capitol Dr, Wheeling, IL, 60090.
Special thanks to Gay-Young Cho, Kay Kihwa Rho, and Abby Foss for their help with this article. Image used in header is courtesy of the Korean Cultural Center of Chicago.
Marie Rowley, Marketing and Communications Manager