We celebrate our legacy and embrace our future.
Founded in 1940, SSCAC is the oldest African American art center in the United States and is a Chicago Historic Landmark. While taking pride in our rich past, we today build on our legacy and innovatively serve as an artist- and community-centered resource with programs, exhibitions and events that inspire.
SSCAC showcases established artists and nurtures emerging creators. Through educational and artistic programs, exhibitions, talks, tours, and more, the center strives to engage, educate and connect community members to African American art and artists.
SSCAC is proud to have partnerships with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College and the University of Chicago. The center is supported by Alphawood Foundation Chicago, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Chicago Community Trust, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the Driehaus Foundation, the Field Foundation of Illinois, the Joyce Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Monarch Awards Foundation, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.
Artist and former
executive director, on
“It’s not a
mausoleum. It’s a
means it’s still
The mission of the South Side Community Art Center is to conserve, preserve and promote the legacy and future of African American art and artists while educating the community on the value of art and culture.
Created by the Roosevelt Administration, the New Deal and its Works Progress Administration create jobs and provide work for unemployed artists.
The Federal Art Project, sponsored by the WPA, begins to create more than 100 community art centers around the country. The WPA requires community members to raise enough money to lease or purchase a building, pay for utilities and purchase art supplies. The WPA then pays for remodeling of the building, administrative staff and faculty.
South Side businessman Golden B. Darby organizes the Community Art Center Committee to compete for a center through the Federal Art Project. Darby selects 3831 S. Michigan Avenue as the center’s desired location.
- On October 25, the first official meeting of the Community Art Center Committee takes place at the Chicago Urban League office. George F. Thorp, director of the Federal Art Project of Illinois, and Peter Pollack, an official with the Federal Art Project of Illinois and an art dealer, attend the meeting. Metz Lochard, an editor at the Chicago Defender, introduces Pollack to Pauline Kigh Reed, a social worker who introduces Pollack to artists at the South Side Settlement House. Pollack serves as a liaison with community groups supporting the development of the center and becomes its first administrative director. Members of the Arts Craft Guild, the sole group of African American visual artists in the community, attend the meeting. Members included artists Margaret Burroughs, Eldzier Cortor, Bernard Goss, Charles White, William Carter, Joseph Kersey and Archibald Motley, Jr.
- Committee members begin to raise funds for the center. Bronzeville residents give generously through fundraising events like performances, parties, lectures and exhibitions held throughout the community. Margaret Burroughs holds a famous “Mile of Dimes” fundraiser on South Parkway, now Martin Luther King Drive.
"We had no place to exhibit, so some of us got together, and we decided what we would do was try to get a place. We decided that we needed to get the money to buy the [SSCAC] building, so I and quite a few of the other young artists … we got collection cans.”
-Dr. Margaret Taylor Burroughs — SSCAC founder, visual artist, writer, poet, educator, and arts organizer
The inaugural Artists’ and Models’ Ball is held on October 23 at the Savoy Ballroom. This event provides the funds for the committee to purchase the center’s building.
The South Side Community Art Center acquires its building at 3831 S. Michigan Avenue — a large house commissioned in 1892 by George A. Seaverns, Jr. and designed by architect Gustav Hallberg. Renovation planning begins, and designers Hin Bredendieck and Nathan Lerner, from the New Bauhaus School of Design, remodel the mansion’s interior with classrooms, lecture and performance halls, and a gallery. WPA craftsmen create furniture specifically for the space. On December 15, SSCAC opens its doors. The inaugural exhibition includes paintings that were displayed at the American Negro Exposition held in Chicago earlier that year, including the works of Henry Avery, William Carter, Charles White, Archibald Motley, Jr., Joseph Kersey, Margaret Burroughs, Bernard Goss and William McBride.
On May 7, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt delivers the dedication speech at a ceremony broadcast nationwide via the Columbia Broadcasting National Radio System and covered by major local and national media networks. Professor and cultural historian Alain Locke introduces the First Lady, and Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters attend the party.
- On December 8, the United States enters World War II, and WPA Federal Art Project expenditures are impacted
All federal funding for the Federal Art Project ceases, eliminating the administrative director position at SSCAC. Despite this, programs continue at the center thanks to the support of donors.
Artist Rex Goreleigh became administrative director of the center. Under his leadership, classes in drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, crafts, literary and performing arts, and more take place. Exhibitions feature works from Hughie Lee-Smith, Augusta Savage, Ellis Wilson and John Biggers. Famous writers Willard Motley, Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks are associated with the center’s writers’ forum. Nat King Cole’s King Cole Trio performs at SSCAC on weekends.
During the Cold War and the Red Scare, there are rumors of “un-American” activities taking place at the center. The executive board bans artists and their associates from the center in order to end the rumors. Artist Fitzhugh Dinkins and fellow artists protest the board’s decision by sitting on the center’s steps prior to establishing a workshop across the street.
- During this decade, a few dedicated board members and emerging artists uphold the mission of the center and are able to keep it open on a part-time basis. The center is the only place in Chicago where minority artists can regularly exhibit their work.
Sylvester Britton and Ramon Price recruit a group of artists to help revive SSCAC. They successfully revived the Artists’ and Models’ Ball as a major funding source for the center.
- Wilhelmina Blanks, Fern Gayden and Grace Thompson Leaming oversee the center’s finances, generously donating their own money when center funds fall short for the mortgage and utilities. In 1965, they asked Johnson Publishing Company executive Herbert Nipson to become board chairperson. Under Nipson’s leadership, the center solicits community artists to contribute artwork to an auction. The auction becomes a successful annual event that generates funds, promotes awareness and attracts new collectors.
Some board members suggest the center move to a different neighborhood, but community members request that it remain in Bronzeville.
A 'Black Artists Doing (BAD) Costume Ball is held on Saturday March 25th.
On November 7, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named SSCAC a National Treasure.
With help from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and the Fund II Foundation, SSCAC receives masonry cleaning work and original window restoration.
SSCAC is the only African American art center of its kind opened under the WPA to remain continuously open in its original building. The center has an extensive permanent collection, including pieces from its founding artists, and regularly acquires new pieces. It continues to evolve, featuring works from emerging artists, virtual shows and tours, classes, events and more. The Artists’ and Models’ Ball remains a vital annual event. SSCAC’s heart beats strongly after 80 years, as the center continues to inspire and connect with community members for the love of art – celebrating its legacy and embracing its future.
“It’s not a mausoleum. It’s a temple, which means it’s still producing.”
-Faheem Majeed Artist and former executive director, on SSCAC