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Photograph of two African American women, Mae Jemison and Isobel Neal, embracing. Mae Jemison wears a red dress and holds a bouquet of flowers. Photograph of two African American women, Mae Jemison and Isobel Neal, embracing. Mae Jemison wears a red dress and holds a bouquet of flowers.


Women-Made Chicago Art Spaces


Responding to disproportionate racial and gender representation within Chicago’s modern and contemporary art scene in the 20th century, women seized the gap by forging their own spaces throughout the city. Learn about the history of placemaking in Chicago art spaces through selections from the Research Center’s Libraries and Archives. 

Margaret Burroughs and the South Side Community Art Center

Black-and-white portrait photograph of an African American woman wearing a beret and leaning on a small object with a framed work of art behind her.

Margaret Burroughs

African American Artists of Chicago Subject File, Institutional Archives

In addition to being a writer, visual artist, and educator, Margaret Burroughs (1917–2010) was also an institution-builder who believed in the importance of Black-centered spaces. At 23 years old, Burroughs cofounded the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) in the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville, which continues to thrive today as the oldest Black arts center in the US. In 1961, Burroughs also helped establish the DuSable Museum of African American History, which began in the living room of her Bronzeville home before moving south to its current location in Washington Park. 

Exhibition pamphlet that reads "Student Art Exhibition, Aug. 7 to Sept. 5". Beneath the words at the top is a print of two small children standing together. Notes are scribbled at the top.

Screenprint exhibition pamphlet from student art exhibition at the South Side Community Art Center

South Side Community Art Center Artist File, Ryerson and Burnham Libraries

Since its founding in 1941, the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) has fostered an environment in which Black artists can proudly share their work and community members can easily engage with art. This exhibition pamphlet exemplifies the types of educational arts programs that the center has historically offered for adults and children. Black artists from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago often taught classes at SSCAC, sharing their knowledge and resources with South Side residents.

Photograph of two African American women, Mae Jemison and Isobel Neal, embracing. Mae Jemison wears a red dress and holds a bouquet of flowers.

Isobel Neal and Mae Jemison embrace during a gallery reception in Chicago, 1992

In 1986, former Chicago public school teacher Isobel Neal opened the Isobel Neal Gallery. Neal’s prior involvement with the South Side Community Center led her to identify that Black artists in Chicago struggled to find gallery representation, and so she devoted her gallery to the exhibition of work by Black artists. The space became widely known and was especially cherished by Chicago’s Black community. In 1996 Mae Jemison, the first Black woman astronaut to travel to outer space—photographed here with Neal—selected the gallery to host her homecoming reception over other prominent Chicago venues, including Navy Pier.

Exhibition program for Isobel Neal gallery. It contains text and images for artists Francisco Mora and Elizabeth Catlett.

Exhibition program for “In the Hemisphere of Love,” 1994

Located in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, the Isobel Neal Gallery exhibited both established and emerging Black artists, including artists that have since gained a national reputation such as Charles White, Ed Clark, Norman Lewis, Phoebe Beasley, and Elizabeth Catlett—shown here in the exhibition program for “In the Hemisphere of Love.” Following the gallery’s closure after ten years of operation, many of these artists went on to show their work in other galleries and museums throughout Chicago and the country. Even after closing the gallery, Neal continued to support the arts through independent curating and civic leadership roles at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Program sheet that reads "Artemisia Members at Chicago State University" with the date and names of the members. Under the text are small photograph headshots of the women.

Program for “Artemisia Members at Chicago State University”

Founded and maintained by women graduate students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), some pictured here, Artemisia Gallery opened in 1973, mere weeks after the women-run ARC gallery opened across the hall in the same building. The SAIC group named their gallery after the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few women artists in Italy during that period; her work often illustrated strong female figures. The gallery functioned as a feminist cooperative—a space run by and for women with the aim of disrupting the patriarchal art world.

CD cover that reads "the MIX an audio document of selections from live recordings of the Mixing Sound Art Festival" and has a photo of two women.

CD from the Mixing Women in Sound Art Festival, about 1988–89

At Artemisia Gallery, women artists developed their skills, experimented with processes, and built community. The gallery promoted radical political perspectives through exhibitions that addressed domestic violence, protested US imperialism in Central America and the Carribean, and expanded the visibility of Indigenous American women painters, among other efforts. It also fostered experimentation with artistic and display practices through programming that included the Mixing Women in Sound Art Festival (album and poster art shown here) which brought women sound artists from across the globe to participate in Chicago’s art scene.

Photograph of women with light skin sitting in a half circle, with their legs outstretched meeting in the middle. A fluffy dog sits in front of them.

Members of the ARC Gallery

ARC Gallery—which stands for Artists, Residents, Chicago—opened in 1973 as one of the city’s first art spaces managed completely by women, and it continues to operate as a female artists’ cooperative today. The founding members, pictured  above, came from various artistic backgrounds and were frustrated with the structural barriers that prevented women artists from thriving in Chicago. ARC’s mission was to provide women with mentorship and practical resources for artistic success.

Catalogue cover. Blue with the words "RAW SPACE" and a print of sketchy forms that look like trees.

Cover of the RAW Space catalogue, 1986–88

Three years after ARC first opened, it relocated, along with Artemisia Gallery, to Hubbard Street, a thriving hub for alternative art galleries during the 1970s. That same year, ARC created an additional venue named RAW Space, which offered a platform for installation artists. Today, RAW Space serves as an incubator where artists can apply to rent the venue for installation and performance projects.

“Highlights of Women-Made Chicago Art Spaces” was curated by Kayleigh Doyen and Isabella Ko, 2018–2020 Andrew W. Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellows at the Art Institute of Chicago.


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