Arts Incubators Heating Up: A Revival for Professional Innovators

Laura Schell

In 1986 the term “incubator” expanded from start-up businesses to Chicago’s underground art scene. Creative groups operating from basements and apartments found they needed office space and management training to keep up with the evolving arts market. Arts Bridge in Chicago became the first incubator developed for the arts in the country and went on to provide emerging nonprofit arts organizations with low-cost facilities and resources for 17 years. Unfortunately, after Arts Bridge closed in 2003, few arts incubators have survived past their first couple years. It’s hard to define what an incubator is exactly. The term is used loosely to characterize any place willing to nurture fledgling professionals. But there is a new revival of innovative arts incubators in the city. I narrowed my list down to a few non-profits with three things in common. They have space that they share with resident artists in a supportive learning environment. In some cases the incubator consists of the non-profit as a whole. Others consider the artists-in-residence program the incubator, separate from the non-profit’s other programs. Either way, artists should consider taking advantage of the opportunities these local incubators offer. Here is a breakdown of those new and still standing.

Union Street Gallery
Started in 1995

Located at the impressive, reclaimed Elk’s Lodge built in 1927, Union Street Galleries in Chicago Heights is the oldest surviving arts incubator in Chicago. The building has two floors of exquisite gallery and workspace that developers designed according to artists’ needs during the building’s renovation in 2005. The second floor overlooks the gallery’s common area used for lectures and workshops creating a dramatic community space. The building also holds sixteen individual studios for their artist residency. The artists’ have 24/7 access to their studios, which are relatively private, with hard wood floors and abundant natural light. The artists’ spaces vary in size and are quite the steal at about $1/sq. ft. per month. A classroom allows residents to teach classes and workshops, which are available to the public and usually free, although donations are suggested. USG selects their studio artists from an extensive application process. USG’s collaborative is supportive of artists in any stage of their career who want exhibition experience with at least two group shows within the year. The organization expects their residents to be highly involved in USG’s programming and activities. Artists must be “be a resource for art appreciation and education to the communities that make up the Chicago Southland.” They meet once a month with USG coordinators to help in the organization’s business development and volunteer at least eight hours per month to organizing exhibits, acting as spokespersons in the community, and instructing workshops as well as community outreach programs the gallery facilitates.

Chicago Art Department
Started in 2004

The city can seem cold and intimidating to artists wanting to establish a studio practice with limited funds and nominal experience, but outside pressures and expectations are left at the door in the safe haven that is Chicago Art Department. “Try it. Make it. Share it. That’s it,” says Mike Nourse, co-founder of CAD along with fellow SAIC graduates, Nathan Peck and Nat Soti. At the non-profit’s West Loop location, called CAD West, art is rooted in accessibility, with 2400 sq. ft. of space used for classes, workshops, exhibitions and resident studios. Coordinator Abraham Velazquez, who teaches a screen-printing class, says the space attracts a diverse crowd who work in a variety of mediums. Every six months the space is renegotiated for new and continuing residents. Their application process is flexible. “As long as you have the passion and drive we are looking for it is easy to get involved,” says Velazquez. For $225 a month residents have 24/7 admittance to their personal workspace (6’x6’ cubicles) as well as access to a screen-printing facility, a photo studio, and gallery space to exhibit work. “Students can come try out an idea without necessarily losing their shirt,” says Peck. The incubator’s success depends greatly on how the residents and coordinators work together. Currently 11 artists make up the CAD residency. Through collaboration and conversation with the community they seek to nurture new voices, ideas, and practices in contemporary art.

Chicago Artist Coalition’s Bolt Residency
Started in 2011

The Bolt Residency at Chicago Artist Coalition is more exclusive, with a highly competitive application process juried by four Chicago art professionals. “We are looking for artists who are prepared to fully take advantage of the residency’s variety of programs and established infrastructure. We are also seeking those who are willing to creatively contribute to the organization,” says director of exhibitions, Cortney Lederer. Some of the residents are fresh out of art school wanting to continue the experience of consistent feedback. Other artists participating are veering their career in a new direction. The one-year residency is housed in the 8,000 square feet of CAC’s Coalition Gallery in West Loop where each artist has a solo show. This year’s eleven residents will be sharing space that includes nine subsidized studios ranging in price from $225 to $525 depending on studio location and privacy. The residents will showcase their work regularly to some of the city’s key cultural leaders such as artists, curators, art dealers and collectors. All of the ABC (ART.BUSINESS.CREATE) programs offered to CAC members, with topics like marketing, technology and copyright issues, are free to residents throughout the year. CAC is making room for any changes to cater to the resident’s needs. “There is some flexibility that will need to happen between the artists and the staff. But I think that is a very exciting challenge. It will be a learning curve for us, but we are ready for it,” says Lederer. She hopes that CAC will grow as a result of the residents’ creative input and that the artists will accomplish some of their specific goals as well as progress in unforeseen ways.