Kristina: How would you describe Chicago Urban Arts Society to someone who’s never been here before and wouldn’t know about you?
Lauren: I think that we are a unique alternative art space in Chicago. The more specific response in terms of funding is that we are a non-profit exhibition and creative use space. My brother and I are co-founders of the space, and he is primarily interested in exhibitions, curatorial work, but I’m very interested in creative synergies. So I always tell people we’re exhibitions, creative use, sometimes family parties. We also got “top ten” for this year’s DIY alternative setting weddings.
K: I saw on your website you guys filled up the space with tables one time, and you had a big dinner?
L: Yeah, so we not only do the traditional exhibitions, which are really cool, but then we also explore culinary arts. We are totally an umbrella organization, so anything that is creative…
K: That’s why you have an umbrella in your logo!
L: There you go, baby! It’s funny because we originally started as 32nd Urban Gallery. We were a for-profit, and we were trying to figure out a name, and I said, “I really like the word society,” which sounds very elitist, but juxtaposed with urban. Then, people thought, “Oh, you guys are a graffiti gallery because you have the word urban in your name.” We’re South Chicagoans. We are really inspired by the urban landscape.
K: That’s interesting that you say that because you have become linked now in connection to public art.
L: When you think about a contemporary and urban environment, and you have two Latinos from Chicago, they’re just automatically thinking graffiti and street art. We’re just like, “No man, we just like contemporary art, and we also like fine art, and graffiti’s cool and street art is cool.”
K: Do you guys have an exhibit or show coming up that your brother is planning?
L: Peter’s the principal curator, and this year he focused on a series of shows that brought artists in from outside of the states, which is unique for us and a very different approach we did this year. So we’re done with the year. He’s taking a complete break from curatorial exhibitions for next year, which is good because we’re going to spend a year recruiting for 2015. We’re going to do a bunch of creative events–more events with Vocalo, with community organizations, some pop-up dinners. We’ll work with caterers, some independent chefs who want a spot. We did that farm table, we had like 200 people in the space, which is pretty awesome.
K: I’m really surprised how many groups—not just us and you, but many people—are really into this food and art thing.
L: It’s this idea of communal eating. When you’re at home eating with your family, you’re talking about your day and about life, so why not do it in a different setting? I think people are doing all these pop-up dinners at home and these underground dinners, which is really cool, but we’re just like, “We have 2500 square feet. Pop up a kitchen. Do it.”
K: What is the most unusual event you guys have ever had here?
L: We do this fashion show battle.
L: Yeah, it was a straight-up battle from the designers to the models that they selected. This was a really interesting community of African-American South Side designers who do these battles, essentially. One of them rents a space, and they are the battle planner. But literally, two different models, two different designers walking down there and doing the sashay thing, and like one hundred people were seated and then people were cheering, and they popped up numbers. What’s really unique about our space is that we’re so big, and people are always looking for space, but we really keep our budget–our rental costs–so we donate a lot of our space. Some people are like, “I need space but don’t have the funding,” so we’ll work with people all the time.
K: I only have one more question: One of your former criticisms of Chicago Artists Month is that it wasn’t more inclusive of neighborhoods, and I’m wondering if their new approach is any better or getting them closer?
L: Chicago’s so diverse and unique in geography, and there’s the history of segregation, and the history of the creative tensions, too, which is interesting. I’m from the Southwest side of Chicago from a community called Brighton Park, which is largely Latino right now, but when I was there, it was primarily Lithuanian and Polish. So my family’s from Pilsen, but we moved into that area, and it is absolutely art poor. It is devoid of any public art area. There are no galleries, there are no cafes. When you think globally, that a city that is trying to be a premier art city with a great exposition at Navy Pier and all of these art fairs that happen, it is primarily in communities that have particular assets, such as proximity to downtown, proximity to the lake, proximity to particular museums or other cultural landmarks, but when you go further west, those traditional assets are not there. So when I made that comment, I’m very vocal, very opinionated on that because I think that the city, in cooperation with the creative sector, really needs to do more activities in communities that are so devoid of any creative outlets or opportunities. Pilsen is cool, but Pilsen is also really art rich.
K: Pilsen is also really close to the Loop.
L: It’s an easy choice to choose Pilsen to highlight, but there are other communities in Chicago that are not so fortunate to have developed economic engines to motivate creative and economic tourism. What would have been much more impactful is if you can look at Back of the Yards or Brighton Park or McKinley Park, and really show Chicago, that there is this really unique community, and you can do this creative pop-up or activation type activity.
K: Your space is here, so this is good for you and your space.
L: But I’ve also been in this business for several years, and my brother and I have worked hard to develop our brand and cultivate our audience and our collector base. And folks know us from the Lowrider Fest to our exhibitions, so I think we’ve got enough street cred in the Chicago art community, and we have a very special interest in going into communities of need, but you’re limited because of funding and time.
K: So you’d like to see more funding to back up that initiative?
L: Yeah, so I understand the broader tourism perspective, but it’s my hope that they would choose to activate a community that’s untouched in that art way, and showcase that community and get people out there in really awesome ways. Barbara [Koenen], who organizes Chicago Artists Month, is really great. We’re one of their neighborhood curatorial partners, so it’s not only your event that we’re excited about, but also the tours across the street, and the Mural Trolley Ride.
Be sure to check out the rest of Chicago Artists Month programming in Pilsen here.