This gallery brings world-class art to the streets of Chicago

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A decades-old street art gallery in Chicago was beginning to fade, but now a new generation is transforming it into a world-class art district. Here’s their story — in their own words.

Lavar Hoard, Founder, The B_Line

The B Line is a gallery much like the Art Institute. In all, there’s about 250 murals under one central curation.

I lived in Fulton Market District for 11, 12 years now, and I would always walk by with a sort of curiosity about what these faded and cracked murals were. My curiosity grew to the point where I called up the train company Union Pacific I asked them what’s the deal with that project?

So in 1971, Ricardo Alonzo with walk from West Town to SAIC where he was going to school, where he would see these walls like I did. He was inspired to want to paint those because they presented themselves like a gallery.

It was really a community-focused project. There was a lot of racial tension in the city, but you had black artist painting next to latino artists and white artists.

After two years, we’re probably only 20 percent into this revival effort as I call it. Our goal is to do justice to the first street art district in this country, and to show a lot of different forms of art and to show how far street art has come in 50 years.

Jake Mertens, Artist

I’m from Lincoln Park. As a kid in Chicago, I don’t really remember seeing a lot of like public art other than you know, some of the like 1970s stuff on Hubbard on the B Line.

When I was getting into street art, before I started painting, a part of the thrill was hunting it down, like going to see the new stuff popping up in the city. And the B Line has been great about booking more and more artists from around the world, who are coming here to install.

As a local like me, as I’m sure it is to a lot of other people, it really really means a lot because you get to have a little more pride in your city, you know, and it’s a way to bring people together.

Lavar Hoard, Founder, The B_Line

Really, when you look at these walls, it presents itself just like gallery with each one of these buttresses dividing the walls. You’re gonna get like some high concept Mexican Street art, mixed with a something you might expect to see at the Art Institute, colorful abstract murals.. and you’re gonna get people of color.

We have to transform this grimy, shady looking, you know railroad tunnel and underpass into a thing of beauty and it’s a it’s a huge process. Today, we are cleaning up one of the many tunnels on the B Line. It’s been a hotbed for fly dumping furniture, dumping trash. We call the city, but they’re not – shall we say – quick, or don’t respond. We pick up the slack.

I walk these tunnels and these alleys and these streets every day. So do my artists and some of the people that help out in the community. So there’s always eyeballs in these forgotten spaces. That’s just one of the powers of street art that I found, is that the art itself can bring people together.

There’s a power to what we’re doing and if I don’t do it, who will?

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Schubart: The prism of the arts offers a perception of ourselves, our past and our future

A dancer from the Shidaa African Culture Project in the Montpelier 4th of July parade in 2018. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Bill Schubart is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is a retired businessman and active fiction writer, and was a former chair of the Vermont Journalism Trust, the parent organization for VTDigger.

I recently attended a quiet conference that brought together leaders and innovators in the arts, humanities, and public broadcast. We met for two days to explore how the arts and humanities, writ large, contribute to articulating and solving some of society’s most intractable problems.

The program opened with a heads-up ceremony by Vera Sheehan of Abenaki Arts acknowledging and honoring the land and its earliest inhabitants. It was a wonderful reminder that we white Vermonters are not the beginning of civilization.

The program looked at major challenges Vermont faces, such as health care, economic development, diversity, support for veterans, and equity and inclusion. Presenters gave examples of how Vermont’s cultural organizations have both told stories and offered solutions. One of the more compelling was a Flynn Mainstage dance program performed by a company of Vermonters with Parkinson’s disease, followed days later by a flash mob performance on Church Street.

There are myriad examples of how cultural organizations have transformed struggling communities by making them arts hubs which then attract tourism, engage communities, and create economic activity in new enterprises and jobs. Nicola Smith, who co-wrote “Deployed,” a play about women veterans and performed by Northern Stage at the V.A. Medical Center in White River Junction, explained how her work had uncovered and dramatized the staggering degree of sexual abuse in the military and the psychological damage it incurs among veterans.

Societies and economies have always been informed and transformed by the arts and humanities. Vermont’s own cultural nonprofits — The Vermont Arts, Humanities and Folklife councils, the Vermont Historical Society, the Flynn Center, Catamount Arts, Burlington City Arts, Rokeby, the Shelburne Museum, Vermont Authors Project, Billings Farm and Museum, Old Stone House, Vermont College of Fine Arts, Center for Cartoon Studies, Vermont Studio Center, the Clemmons Family Farm — as well as the cultural programs of Vermont’s 20 plus colleges and 250 libraries all enrich our consciousness of and discussion about how society and the economy affect our lives.

As issues like environmental degradation, higher ed failures, health care access and cost, homelessness, small school closures loom larger, the stories we tell one another, through the arts and humanities lens become increasingly important and intrinsic to our understanding of how to find our way forward. For example, the Young Writer’s Project and the Vermont Youth Orchestra probably tell us more about ourselves and our future leaders than the many demographic reports we see.

But unlike most other civilized countries, the U.S. which hasn’t seen fit to offer a national health care system, also denies significant support for our cultural heritage, museums, public broadcasting, and arts and humanities organizations. The budget for the National Endowment for the Arts is less than a third of the $437 million budget for the military’s 130 marching bands. Support for perhaps the most illuminating aspect of our lives, our capacity to share our stories and experience, is left largely to philanthropy and the modest support that states can afford to invest.

All of Vermont’s cultural nonprofits have a rich treasure trove that chronicles our shared experience throughout our history. Much of it languishing in libraries, small museums or in private hands. A concerted effort to digitize images, story, music, and artifact is needed to literally turn our cultural nonprofits inside out and make them available to all of us and to other peoples and cultures around the world. Support for public media is vital for many reasons, but in the arts and humanities it can play a vital role in the broad dissemination of our cultural record and our dialogue about the future.

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As the conference ended, we were asked for our significant take-aways. I offered two moments that I found particularly enlightening. One was the memorable Abenaki land ceremony which made so clear that we are all part of a continuum of stewardship … hardly, as we imagine, the beginning of civilization.

The second was from an African American choreographer and professor who said they’re often asked if they’re a Vermonter, to which they ask back, “What to you is a real Vermonter?” The conventional answer I’ve heard and tacitly subscribed to all my life is – a white person, often from an agrarian background, descended from at least three generations of the same. The professor went on to suggest that a state trying to attract more young people and immigrants might want to develop a less exclusionary definition. What if the simple answer were, “anyone coming to Vermont out of appreciation for its values, land, and people.” 

What I learn from the arts and humanities continues to transform me even at the age of 74.  

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Bill Schubart