An Interview with Isis Ferguson, Associate Director of City + Community Strategy
I had the privilege of talking with Isis Ferguson, Associate Director of City + Community Strategy at Chicago's Place Lab. She shared with me her unique take on the role of traditional measurement in successful outreach.
From the moment our conversation began, her commitment to social change was clear. Ferguson has her feet on the ground on Chicago’s South Side, where she both lives and works.
In her role at the Place Lab (a partnership between University of Chicago's Arts + Public Life initiative and the Harris School of Public Policy), Ferguson is part of a collaborative team of seven professionals devoted to Place Lab being "a catalyst for mindful urban transformation and creative redevelopment for equitable and livable cities."
Together the team conducts translation work, from "discipline to discipline, from institution to institution and community to community.”
Q: How does Place Lab’s vision of an “arts and culture-led neighborhood transformation” work?
A: We are “driven by what we are good at, which is a focus on design and cultural projection and art. It is embedded in our work.”
The programs are offered at no cost, but Ferguson challenges the assumption that offering a service for free is a magic bullet for reaching a local community:
Outreach happens -- it is NOT outreach just because it is no-cost
It happens “with strategic partnerships with other institutions; outreach happens in more formal ways but not necessarily traditional ways.”
Q: Can you tell me an example of a recent Place Lab project and what you learned from that project?
A: “We outreached last summer to the four-block radius of the closed St. Laurence School (which had been sitting vacant for over ten years) by “flyering,” holding meetings – letting people know that there was activity happening here."
“We asked what are the problems of the building and how can those problems be addressed.”
“The building has three stories and had an incredible amount of broken windows. Construction typically involves boarding up windows, but instead, we connected artists with the community. A workshop, called Board Up: Patterns in Place, was led by artist Ruben Aguirre and drew from the history of the community and Ebony collection at the Stony Island Arts Bank.”
From the Place Lab website:
Place Lab held a grand unveiling of a geometric window design by local youth at the St. Laurence Elementary building, a former Catholic school that has sat vacant for the last 12 years. Several middle school students in the community helped design and paint window boards that will be used to winterize the building,
When the panels were unveiled, Place Lab had a party with a musicians procession and free school supplies. It was "really a ‘school party’ where neighbors came outside and stepped up, offering time and skills."
“It was a way of having a very early "advisory committee." What the focus might be was left very open within arts and culture.”
Q: What do you see as the limiting factor to effectiveness in reaching the community through art?
A: It is "interesting how we put pressure on our public spaces,” to do everything from transforming the community, increasing retail, and improving education.
This is what Ferguson calls the “magical building” effect, and maintains that “it is okay to be art,” as opposed to being able to measure and report stats.
Q: How can the success of a building like the Stony Island Art Bank be measured?To make and to do, that in itself is OKAY
A: We are “trying to create spaces where people don’t have the expectation of ‘magical building,’ where it is perfectly valid and useful for a space to have a point of view and things that it does.”
“People think that because we are called a “lab,” that what we do is about data. We don’t do data analysis, we are the implementers and the observers (narrative, ethos and purpose).”
Q: Other than money what would you do with art on the South Side in the next ten years?
“There is such a legacy and history here. It has always been a creative place.” Ferguson envisions a “cultural renaissance” on the South Side, a “modern version of Bronzeville.”
“Our dream is to replicate exactly that, that people visiting, or from Chicago, know that you don’t need to leave the South Side to be challenged to find places that feel free to use the space, where we can experiment and iterate and create.”
Q: Do you do outreach to the “community”? Who is the community? When did the efforts start?
A: "From what I understand, the first year before the arts incubator began was a year of listening and visits to document of the history of the neighborhood – to hear what people’s perception of the neighborhood are."
Listening is the first step in what is strategically part of the “Activation” of a neighborhood.
The concept of “Activation” evokes what Heddie Judah in an article for the Independent calls a place where "if all the inanimate objects in the world lay temporarily dormant, like a handful of seeds, waiting only for the benediction of creative rain to spring into life."
Ferguson continues, "through Place lab we have succeeded in ‘re-imagining the civic commons,’ working to bring on four more sleepy properties on the south and west side."
Q: Tell me more about the folks are who doing urban-based work?
A: The Rebuild Foundation is a “platform” for art, cultural development, and neighborhood transformation.
From the Rebuild Foundation website:
Founded and led by artist Theaster Gates, the projects of Rebuild Foundation support artists and strengthen communities by providing free arts programming, creating new cultural amenities, and developing affordable housing, studio, and live-work space.
The mission of Rebuild Foundation is to make art matter more by demonstrating the impact of innovative, ambitious and entrepreneurial arts and cultural initiatives. The Foundation work is informed by three core values: black people matter, black spaces matter, and black things matter.
Read more about Rebuild Foundation:
Q: What would that transformation look like?
A: Ferguson doesn’t have to think about that question, she answers, it looks like:
- Stony Island Arts Bank
- Black Cinema House
- Dorchester Art & Housing Collaborative
- St. Laurence Project
- Black Artists Retreat
- Archive House