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Sacred spaces as 'keepers of the culture'

In the coming months, artists in South Chicago will be going to church in droves—but not necessarily to worship.

This summer marked the start of a collaboration between Claretian Associates, NCP lead agency in South Chicago, and the Arts in Sacred Places (AiSP) program of Partners for Sacred Places, which is a national organization committed to preserving older religious structures for community use.

Photo: Photo courtesy Partners for Sacred Places

Arts in Sacred Places, underway in both South Chicago and Logan Square, is building on a pilot program in Philadelphia.

The joint venture aims to solve two problems: How to accommodate the workspace needs of South Chicago’s emerging community of artists, and how best to preserve churches and religious properties that are largely unused. The solution has been for Claretian Associates to act as a sort of broker and matchmaker.

“Arts in Sacred Places is about relationships,” said Gianfranco Grande, vice president for philanthropy and business development for Partners for Sacred Places and the director of its Chicago office. “We're building on a tradition that dates back centuries, if not millennia. It is a tradition in which houses of worship share space with artists, not out of convenience or to cut costs but because the two parties have a shared mission and shared values. Arts in Sacred Places trains congregations and artists to find and identify partners with whom they are compatible, and to develop sustainable space-sharing relationships based on their common mission and values."

Building on Past Experiences
Encouraged by the success of its pilot program in Philadelphia, Arts in Sacred Places kicked off its Chicago program in Logan Square and South Chicago in 2011, with staff and interns spending the summer surveying more than 50 artists and faith leaders in the city. Staffers gathered stories and collected data that chronicled existing partnerships and examined the potential for future partnerships.

Photo: Photo courtesy Partners for Sacred Places

Father Mark Kalema and the team from Our Lady of Peace brainstorm during the Arts in Sacred Places training.

“Knowing the city’s commitment to neighborhoods, we wanted to test out the neighborhood model,” said Amy Schachman, a project manager in the Chicago office of Partners for Sacred Places. "We've been watching the success of the New Communities Program model and applying its lessons to the launch of AiSP in Chicago.”

“In both Logan Square and South Chicago, we recognized two neighborhoods that had a great number of houses of worship that were being underutilized, and two communities that were excited about the project,” said Dawn Marie Galtieri, a consultant working with Partners for Sacred Places on the AiSP rollout.

The two communities are perceived very differently when it comes to the arts,” added Schachman. “While Logan Square is commonly recognized as a place where artists are moving to live and work, South Chicago is not,” she said. “And we were attracted to going into a neighborhood where people think there aren't artists and lots of art, connecting them with space in sacred places, and showcasing the vibrant creative work that is taking place in that community.”

Photo: NCP file photo

"Sacred Places is joining forces with us at the perfect time," said Jackie Samuel, NCP director at Claretian Associates. "All of these artists are expanding their reach, and their need for space is going to be a very important element for success."

In South Chicago AiSP reached out to Claretian Associates, which in recent years had developed strong relationships with community artists, starting with LISC’s Building Community Through the Arts program in the mid-2000s.

“Identification of space for artists has always been a priority strategy in the South Chicago quality-of-life plan,” said Jackie Samuel, NCP director in South Chicago. “Just 10 years ago, many of our artists were working outside of the community, and we had to reclaim them. Over the past seven years, I have watched our artists and arts organizations grow, and Sacred Places is joining forces with us at the perfect time. All of these artists are expanding their reach, and their need for space is going to be a very important element for success.”

Orientation Overflow
An orientation at the Chicago Temple in April brought together community arts leaders looking for office, rehearsal and exhibition space with representatives from Sacred Places for critical face-to-face dialogue, of the sort that can lead to unexpected collaborations and greater understanding between the two parties.

“The place was packed,” said Galtieri. “We had over 110 folks from sacred places, arts organizations and agencies that support both at the orientation. …What I saw was innovative people thinking [about] how to move forward.”

Samuel agreed: “Partners for Sacred Places realizes that this is like a marriage, so they are making sure that no one is feeling rushed or pushed into a situation that they will be unhappy with. Many of our artists have been looking for space for some time, so when they see a space in which they can envision themselves, you see this twinkle in their eyes because they finally feel that there is hope to act out their dreams.”

Photo: Photo courtesy Partners for Sacred Places

Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church, under the leadership of Rev. James M. Moody, hosted Module I of the Arts in Sacred Places training.

Arts organizations and sacred places interested in pursuing further dialogue were encouraged to apply for the first of two rounds of classes. Partners expected to enroll eight arts groups and eight sacred places in the first class, but they received 24 applications and brought together 10 arts organizations and 11 sacred places.

“It’s an opportunity for them to better understand one another, form agreements, talk about content and dedicated space, and this brings together both the artist and the sacred place,” Galtieri said. “We're looking for collaborations that might not otherwise happen, so it’s a way to bridge the gap between the two groups.”

The first class was held on July 10, with another round of arts organizations and sacred places to begin training this fall, when Arts in Sacred Places also will host a community-wide forum to highlight the success of the program so far and likely next steps. “The forum, I hope, will help to show South Chicago that the commitment is long term, to show that Partners is not just interested but that there is broad support in the community,” Galtieri said.

“I would call it a meeting of the minds,” added Samuel. “This is an opportunity to debrief and reflect on what has happened so far. All of the artists are in different places of preparedness for this process. It will be great to hear from everyone as sort of a check-in and how to best move forward.”

Photo: Photo courtesy Partners for Sacred Places

Tuomi Forrest, executive vice president of Partners for Sacred Places, works with the team from St. John’s Episcopal Church as they outline their mission and values during the Arts in Sacred Places training.

Tie In to Larger Plans
The forum is timed to coincide both with Chicago’s Artists Month and the rollout of the final draft of the new city wide Cultural Plan, to be unveiled later this fall.

“It’s a great time for the arts in Chicago,” said Schachman. “We have a mayor who's very supportive of the arts and we’re going to have a revised cultural plan that understands and supports the arts community. There seems to be a lot of potential for our program to take off.”

With all the plans in motion to bring South Chicago artists into the community’s sacred places, Samuel took a moment to reflect on the intersection of arts and sacred places in her own life.

“I remember my mother jokingly telling me that I could not get an Easter outfit unless I performed a poem in the Easter Sunday production at church, and when I was a teenager we formed our first drama group in the church,” she said. “Of course you go for spiritual insight and lessons, but my experience as a child always had a connection with arts and culture.”

She remarked on the fact that many South Chicago churches today – and churches across the country – don’t have the resources or staff to provide these much needed services to the community. But they do have the space for it.

Photo: Photo courtesy Partners for Sacred Places

Karen DiLossi of the Arts in Sacred Places program assists the team from North Shore United Methodist Church during the training module.

“I find it very insightful for Partners for Sacred Places to recognize the spatial asset and connect artists to these resources,” said Samuel. “I have always looked at community churches as a place that is the ‘keeper of the culture,’ and we’re working to keep it that way.”

* * *

You can meet the Southeast Chicago visual and performing artists at their second annual Art Fair this Saturday Sept. 15, from 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. at the Lakeside Properties on 8555 S. Greenbay Ave. (two blocks east of Rt. 41 or Burly Street.). For more information, contact Graciela Robledo at (773) 734-9181.

For more information about the upcoming forum this fall, and for information on Partners for Sacred Places and the Arts in Sacred Places program, visit

For more information on Claretian Associates, visit

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