A Lesson In Good Intentions

This spring marked the end of an era in Chicago’s arts educational programming. After almost fifteen years of creative history, Chicago’s prestigious Gallery 37 (g37) has been merged into the larger, administrative structure of the After School Matters (asm) organization. Though it remains to be seen whether this merger will be friendly or hostile, the loss of the notoriously autonomous Gallery 37 will be mourned by hundreds, if not thousands, of current and former apprentices, administrators, and lead artists.

I moved to Chicago in 1998, approximately ten years after the birth of Maggie Daley’s Gallery 37 project. While still in graduate school in ’98/’99, and with few reference points for the debate, I had noted a series of articles in the local press highlighting a very public argument between community activists and the city over the loss of hundreds of Parks District summer jobs for teens. The city had eliminated a huge percentage of these jobs because of major changes in local, state, and federal budgets as well as an increase in funding to the newly remodeled Gallery 37 project, which included a multi-million dollar headquarters at 66 East Randolph Street. Their argument at the time: Though fewer jobs are now available, the quality of experience offered by city arts education-based jobs training programs will be worth far more.

Again, at the time, I had little reference for the debate, though I had noticed that word among the more radical art education projects was that g37 was rigid, overbearing, and tough to work. For instance, Apprentice Artists (AAs, as the students are called) were not allowed to keep their work at the end of programming (it goes into the Gallery 37 store for sale). Rules about conduct (like references to gang affiliation) often dissuaded the very population that “at risk” youth educational grants are meant to serve. And tales of outright censorship of AAs’ work spread from places like Street Level Youth Media (slym) and Video Machete to the point that many of my colleagues refused to work with g37. It was with some trepidation, then, that, after applying to virtually all of these organizations upon graduation (from slym to Artists Resources in Teaching) I took a position as a teaching assistant with g37 in the fall of 2000.

Despite the ills I’d heard about, I found the place to be workable.

After moving from Teaching Assistant to a Lead Artist, I began to write my own curriculum and lead programs for a number of sessions for the next five years. My major frustrations with Gallery 37 at the time can be divided into two basic dilemmas common to bureaucratic educational organizations: The first was with the chain of command. As usual, those furthest from the classroom often made budgeting and administrative decisions that made little sense in actual pedagogical practice. But that is to be expected, I suppose, from pre-schools to even the best of colleges. The second issue, which exposes gross negligence and lack of foresight, is quite likely the reason we are seeing the collapse of the organization now. In the Clinton years, money for arts education seemed to be delivered by the truckload to cities like Chicago. Gallery 37 benefited greatly from this liberalism while, at the same time, it also became a symbol for the success of the Daley (both Mayor and Maggie) regime. Thus, millions of dollars were funneled into the center, especially for a new building at 66 E. Randolph (which looks more like an Urban Outfitters than an arts center). Construction of the culinary program\’s facilities alone, for instance, hit the million-dollar mark. But due to a mix of financial shortsightedness from typically bureaucratic hierarchies, the organization used a huge portion of its money to build the place, leaving very little money earmarked to maintain the facilities in the years to come or to keep programming running at a level worth everyone\’s time and effort. For instance, in the fall of 2000, there were eight projects running in the “Downtown Program”. Two years later, there were half that number. Granted, these cutbacks coincide with a crash in the stock market, a change in our federal political arena, and a war. But the point is, a strong organization knows that this is always a possibility and braces for such changes by spending money wisely when it is available and by saving some money away for when it isn\’t so easily obtainable.

Thus began the sad state of disrepair that will plague even the in-coming After School Matters program. These problems were more obvious in areas like the media arts, where technological upkeep is a constant battle, and less so with, say, painting or poetry, where budget costs for supplies stay rather static from one session to the next. But suffice it to say that anyone teaching 3-D computer modeling or Photoshop is going to be in a heap of trouble should there be no money to fix a broken computer or a digital camera by the second year of the organization.

Hence, many of g37′s media arts programs suffered from shoestring budgets: computers regularly crapped out in weeks of high usage; replacement computer parts were purchased on eBay; even the physical plant began to break down, as key-carded doors stopped working and the ventilation system ran either extremely hot or frigidly cold from one room to the next. This, again, is not unlike the dilemmas faced by most arts educational organizations.

The difference here is one of scale and one of vision. I once had the insightful experience to speak with the person in charge of development and grant writing in the early 2000s, at a point when we were desperate for money to fund everything from hardware to supplies to programming. This person, who seemed less than concerned, didn’t know any of the references I made in the meeting, including those to a major Ford Foundation grant nor of funds available from a wealthy Chicago family with direct ties to Daley.

But despite these messes of funding, g37 worked. Every session I taught with them was a positive experience. Kids from all over Chicago came and met together for ten-week stints to train, in a professional environment, in everything from hand-painted tableware to video and television production to performance slam poetry. In almost ten sessions with Gallery, I never once had a failed project, despite serious collapses of facilities and nightmarish deadlines and workloads. Much of that is due to the sheer force of will of lead artists (and adminstrators) suckered into squeezing blood from turnips for pennies on the dollar. But much of that is also because Gallery 37 attracted this city’s brightest and most creative kids, from all different economic classes, neighborhoods, ethnicities and orientations.

I had 14-year-olds from some of Chicago’s roughest schools working alongside kids in programs at Columbia and UIC. And despite the differences, I never had a single major little tiny ones, yes–they are kids after all problem with disrespect or total unwillingness to engage with each other. Quite the opposite, in fact, as I watched each new group struggle with demanding critical thought and the technical mastery of complex tasks, only to rise above the discomfort and perform, repeatedly, far beyond what I used to believe to be the capacity of 14-21 year-olds. So it is a major loss, I believe, to see the Gallery 37 program engulfed by After School Matters. I cannot say with any authority what will happen, or that it will indeed be a disaster. In fact, in some ways the move addresses issues I already had with Gallery. For instance, for all of Gallery’s diversity, there is no doubt that the kids best served by the place were already being pushed by their parents, siblings, and/or teachers to join the program.

Missing were often those kids that really do typify such educational grant language as “at-risk,” “inner city,” and “underprivileged,” as you couldn\’t work for Gallery unless someone got you there on time for an interview, made sure you brought a portfolio of previous work and coached you to speak articulately to the panel judging your performance. I often wondered how g37 could be more community-based and hence, I have hopes that asm can meet some of those needs. But gone with this change will be the opportunity to place early high school kids (14 and 15-year-olds) alongside emerging college students (19 and 20- year-olds) who serve as powerful role models for kids who can\’t even conceive of life after the tenth grade, as asm serves kids 14-18 only. Gone too will be the intimacy of the Gallery 37 classroom environment.


ASM has a 15 to 1 apprentice-to-instructor ratio, so a class of twenty kids might be taught by only one Lead Artist. This is especially frustrating for, say, photo or graphic design instructors, where typically smaller programs will demand that a single instructor over-see the entire session alone. You don\’t need to be an expert in special education to know that classroom management issues are compounded proportionally by class size. Further, there are stories, from very reliable friends of mine who\’ve worked with asm in school-based art classes, of computer design projects where the software is provided without the hardware to run a class. Finally, there will be the land rush on what is now to be called “Region Seven” of the communities-based asm program–the original Gallery 37 building. The plan is to run advanced-level projects out of the downtown building similar to those originally there. The building, with its state of the art culinary kitchens, beautiful wood-floored dance studios, and multi-million dollar media labs, in many ways requires this. But how will it facilitate the influx of new instructors, a new line of administrators, and a younger pool of apprentices working under drastically more restricted codes of conduct? Based on the curriculum templates I’ve seen posted at asm\’s website, the redundant-yetinconsistent logic of bureaucracy runs rampant through all stages of planning (the budget portion alone is a ten-page document, which I noticed had no room for supplies like VHS tapes, even though the document did include a full page of every conceivable kind of Kodak film). I also noticed, based on the budget, that instructors will experience a drastic drop in pay that once again demonstrates how little we value teaching over administration in this country.

But again, I do hope, as I’m sure most former g37- ites do, that this all works out for the best. I hope my worst fears are allayed and that it is a smashing success that brings kids from otherwise less advantaged places to meet and work and learn in a healthy and supportive environment. I hope it runs smoothly next year and well into the future, despite the highs and lows that will ultimately test the program. But mostly, I just hope asm, so filled now with good intentions, doesn’t repeat the previous mistakes so clearly exemplified by the hierarchies of Gallery 37′s struggle-filled past.

For more information see Gallery 37  and After School Matters