The Spirit of Marwen

Monica Nickolai

“If you are a student in grades 6-12 who lives in Chicago, and you can’t afford to pay for art courses elsewhere, you are invited to take art courses at Marwen for free.”

Although these words may sound like an online scam, they actually appear on the website for Marwen, a dynamic artistic community located in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, just a short distance from the downtown Loop.  However, the classes at Marwen are not just ordinary classes for cutting and pasting crafts; Marwen gives students who otherwise might not receive arts instruction the kind of education usually only available to those in upper income brackets:  first-class facilities, instruction from leading Chicago artists, and opportunities to exhibit and learn within a dynamic community that even professional might artists envy.  Relying almost entirely on donations, the students and employees at Marwen have proven how essential art is to them now and to the future of Chicago at large.

Even when just walking into the building, one begins to understand the spirit of Marwen.  The brick building’s small entrance opens up to a large gallery. The Berkowitz Gallery was named for Marwen’s founder, Steven Berkowitz, an entrepreneur and avid art collector who wanted to provide students with the kind of art education his daughters received. With a high ceiling, exposed structural wooden beams, and a structurally independent glass and steel staircase, the gallery was designed by Wheeler Kearns Architects, a highly-awarded firm based out of Chicago, the building was awarded the Excellence in Architecture Award by the American Institute of Architects, Chicago chapter.  Upstairs is an art library for research and inspiration.  The building also includes a college and career center to help students plan for their academic futures.

Along the gallery’s walls, one finds the work of student artists using video, graphic design software, advanced photography techniques, clay, paint, and other forms of media.  Marwen invites teaching artists in Chicago to submit course proposals each term. Past teaching artists include Angee Lennard of Spudnik Press, Kelly Kaminski of Grip Design, Regin Igloria of Ragdale, filmmaker John Lyons, painter Ann Worthing, sound artist Nick Jaffe, and Academy Award-nominated animator Joe Merideth.  One clearly sees this in the high level of work exhibited in the galleries.

It comes as no surprise, then, that classes are overflowing. This past fall, Marwen had its highest turnout ever, and plans are already being made to meet the needs of the students. Marwen’s programs have received much national attention, including grants from the National Endowment of the Arts, Surdna Foundation, and Wallace Foundation, as well as the Coming Up Taller Award from the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities. However, Marwen relies almost entirely on donations to sustain its programs, with its current budget at about $2 million.

Marwen’s impact is often felt outside of the gallery walls.  In 2004, Marwen published Fuel: Giving Youth the Power to Succeed with arts educator Philip Yenawine.  Marwen has a close relationship with the city. The Executive Director, Antonia Contro, sits on the mayor’s cultural advisory council, and Marwen has developed strong ties with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.  Students’ work also moves out of the gallery.  For example, students in Marwen (and other organizations) worked with artist Jan Tichy for his Project Cabrini Green last year.  Tichy selected Marwen because of its proximity to the housing project.  Students wrote and performed pieces inspired by Cabrini Green, the housing project that became infamously associated with crime by various media outlets.  After watching documentaries made by Cabrini Green residents and reflecting on their own experiences with themes such as ‘home,’ and ‘memory,’ students wrote and performed their own poetry.  The recorded pieces were transmitted into light signals and installed in the building during demolition.  Their work was featured on the project’s website and in a piece exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The work also attracted attention from media outlets, including The New York Times, The Associated Press and WBEZ and has garnered international attention.

Marwen is a hub for Chicago’s students–students from fifty-four of Chicago’s fifty-seven zip codes attend Marwen.  At Marwen, students from all over the city connect with peers they might not meet otherwise. Although Chicago is rich in historical contributions from ethnic neighborhoods, it has been described by sociologists as “hypersegregated.” According to Brandon Hayes, manager of communications and development, “Marwen students and their families are a huge source of strength.” Mingling students from many neighborhoods enables a variety of voices in student work and raises awareness of issues outside of art and promises a future of deeper understanding among Chicago residents.

Amid growing insecurity and shrinking budgets, people are realizing more and more the importance of the kind of art education offered by Marwen.  With so many dedicated donors, employees, and outside supporters, Marwen should continue to make its mark on Chicago for years to come.