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Edgewater Abandoned Theater to become Community Art Space

Susan Du

Chicago sculptor Rosario Rosi is a former U.S. Marine Corps captain with no formal artistic background who went on to create critically-acclaimed works featured around the world. Over the course of a decades-long career that began on the north side of Chicago, Rosi has followed his passion from the art capitals of Asia to Italy, where he found inspiration. In the process, he has established an international reputation for pushing sculpture to expressive extremes.

Now, Rosi has returned to Edgewater to share his creative expertise with the community that fostered them, determined to construct a community center for the arts where the arts once flourished.

“As far as Edgewater goes, it’s not noted for its cultural leanings, but who’s to say? A lot of areas of the city that are now meccas of galleries and cultural institutions were just down and out a few years ago,” Rosi said. He added city officials have planned to build other art venues and theaters for the Edgewater arts corridor on Ridge Avenue, between Clark and Broadway.

As part of this push, Rosi is renovating an abandoned building as a gallery and studio at 5757 N. Ridge Ave. The building was, in fact, a theater built in 1918 as a venue for Charlie Chaplin back in the days when Chicago was in contention with Los Angeles to be the world’s showbiz capital.

If he succeeds in fixing it up to reflect turn-of-the-century Chicago, Rosi hopes the new gallery will be a hub for the arts and help anchor a vibrant artist community in Edgewater. He said he envisions the gallery will host visual and performance arts ranging from 3D installations to piano concerts and performances by dance companies.  His goal is to provide free cultural exposure for members of his community.

“I think the beauty of the gallery when it’s finished should present a desirable location for people and a destination for people to come and visit,” Rosi said. “The community loves it and loves the idea of it being a cultural point that they can gather.”

However, in light of the ongoing economic crisis, Chicago artists have – some would say inevitably –  struggled to fund their work, whether it be painting, sculpture or, in Rosi’s case, massive construction to make a cultural icon of the past relevant again.

Unable to secure commercial loans from local banks, Rosi is currently paying for the project out of his own pocket, drawing from his children’s college funds, his own retirement savings and art sales conducted at The Eighth Day Gallery, which he owns.

Still, he hasn’t given up and is searching for locals to step up and reach out with ideas.

Ald. Harry Osterman (48th Ward) said although development of the long-abandoned real estate into an art gallery would benefit the community greatly, his only concern about Rosi’s vision for the property is his financial capacity to execute it.

“The building’s a beautiful building,” Osterman said. “I’m all for Mr. Rosi developing this site and moving forward. The main challenge that I have is that there are not going to be taxpayer dollars going to finish the buildup. The city is under significant financial challenges and acquiring or developing money to develop a private space is not feasible right now.”

Osterman suggested marketing the real estate to a local arts organization might be a creative way to find other sources of financing. He also expressed enthusiasm for redefining Edgewater as a premier Chicago arts district.

Osterman said, if the project succeeds, Rosi’s vision could reinforce commercial vitality in the area.

“Everyone wants to see the project finished,” he said. “The question is how to pay for it.”

Local painter Dorothy Mason, a member of Edgewater Artists in Motion – a local arts networking group — said lending support to Rosi’s gallery may be a move which fits her organization’s mission, which is “to transform the Edgewater neighborhood into a center for the creative arts and an artistic destination in Chicago,” according to its website. Personally, she said she feels Edgewater currently lacks a space for local artists to gather and network.

“Many don’t realize how many artists there are,” she said of the area. “When we first started Artists in Motion, a lot of artists sort of came out of the woodwork. A gallery would serve the community very nicely and give a forum to artists in the area to show locally.”

Despite financial obstacles to completing the gallery as quickly as he would have liked, Rosi said his perspective on remodeling resonates with his general attitude toward art.

“I never liked to talk about art,” he said. “I don’t really have any artistic conversations. I just need to do it.”