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Art Design Chicago: Centering Community Engagement in Project Creation

November 10, 2023

Art Design Chicago is a citywide collaboration and series of events and exhibitions that highlight Chicago’s unique artistic heritage and creative communities. An initiative of the Terra Foundation for American Art, in partnership with artists and arts organizations across the city, Art Design Chicago seeks to expand narratives of American art with an emphasis on the city’s diverse and vibrant creative cultures and the stories they tell.  

The initiative culminates in public events and exhibitions starting in fall 2023 and continuing into 2025. Many of these projects are grounded in research and community and were developed with the expertise and mutually enriching engagement of community partners. The projects, supported through Terra Foundation grants, are intended to broaden understandings of American art by highlighting artists and designers who have shaped Chicago’s creative legacy and contemporary life and by amplifying the creative communities whose contributions exemplify the full richness and complexity of Chicago’s artistic practices.   

Creating a Partners’ Network

Through grant support to organizations across the Chicagoland area and the coordination of a learning community, the Terra Foundation has centered community engagement in the initiative’s program design. 

“Cultural institutions are thinking about their relevancy in the world, and to continue to thrive, they need to offer value to the people they serve,” said Eva Silverman, ADC Project Director. “In Chicago, many museums and cultural centers are building valuable, mutually beneficial relationships with the community.” 

As part of Art Design Chicago, the program team created a learning community, which brings grantee partners together in various ways to share their approaches and support their community engagement practices. 

“A primary focus of the learning community is to support grantee partners’ efforts to build and strengthen partnerships with community members and organizations,” said Silverman. “Ongoing virtual workshops and convenings allow participants to exchange successful engagement models, support development of strong engagement plans, foster collaboration, and hold each other accountable to carry through with their ideas and share out their learnings so that everyone can benefit from each other’s successes.” 

“Cultural institutions are thinking about their relevancy in the world, and to continue to thrive, they need to offer value to the people they serve. In Chicago, many museums and cultural centers are building valuable, mutually beneficial relationships with the community.” 

Eva Silverman, Art Design Chicago Project Director

Dr. Pascale Ife Williams, Terra Foundation Senior Engagement Fellow, has served as a guide to the Art Design Chicago engagement learning community since July 2021. Williams wrote about her experiences with the community, reflecting on her role over the past two and a half years. 

A person standing at the front of a classroom-style room, with a projection on a wall behind them. People are seated at tables in front of them.

Pascale Ife Williams leads a session of the Art Design Chicago Partner Network, September 27, 2023.

“I have tried to co-create and support spaces where folks―all of whom are deeply committed to the arts, culture, people, and relationships―can gather to slow down and reflect on what they are doing, how they are doing it, why, and more,” said Williams. “The sessions I’ve co-facilitated have also offered people the opportunity to learn from their peers and elders, and ideally activate imaginative, playful and intentional strategies while working alongside the communities they serve. One of my goals as Senior Engagement Fellow is to create a sort of ‘innovation lab’ where folks can continue to be in conversation and practice as they integrate community-engagement strategies into their programming, exhibitions, and beyond.”  

The learning community brought partners together in a series of virtual meetings to generate ideas about community-engagement research-and-development plans they were creating for their Art Design Chicago-supported projects and exhibitions. Representatives from the partner organizations exchanged ideas about concrete strategies, key challenges, and lessons learned through their work. In one session, these ideas and reflections were captured by artists Chiara Francesca, Danbee Kim, Hunter Shackelford, and Tesh Silver in the form of graphic notes and were shared with the group following the session. 

Blue page with purple lettered graphic notes from an Art Design Chicaogo event.

Art Design Chicago, Engagement R&D Learning Exchange, graphic notes by Hunter Shackelford, June 29, 2023

The engagement work has taken many forms, depending on an organization’s goals. Some partners established event series in collaboration with community stakeholders, inviting community members to participate in research activities; others piloted advisory councils to consult on project development; and some worked alongside research and communityengagement fellows.  

Project Development through Community

Through the support of community-engagement research-and-development grants, and the ongoing exchange within the engagement learning community, organizations worked with their communities and with each other to shape their exhibitions and events. The projects that emerge through Art Design Chicago are a lens through which to view the city—they offer Chicagoans and visitors alike the chance to better understand Chicago and its art and design histories and vibrant communities. Included here are three projects informed through dialogue with communities. 

The Block Museum of Art’s project team held research exchanges to collaboratively develop, together with Indigenous artists, activists, and community leaders, the exhibition Woven Being: Indigenous Art Histories of Chicagoland (working title). The museum’s project team writes the exhibition is being formed through “Indigenous curatorial methodologies that prioritize collaboration, reciprocity, and sustained dialogue with an expanding, intergenerational community of Indigenous knowledge sharers and non-Indigenous allies,” and it employs Indigenous curatorial practices to speak to the interwovenness of Indigenous art, materials, and time in the Chicago region. Lois Biggs (Cherokee Nation and White Earth Ojibwe), Terra Foundation Curatorial Research Fellow at The Block, wrote a personal account of a research trip that will inform the exhibition. 

The Chicago Public Library’s photography exhibition Pilsen Days: Photographs by Akito Tsuda, which is scheduled to be on view at the Harold Washington Library Center in 2024 as well as at the Lozano and West Lawn library branches, presents a body of images that capture the life of the Pilsen neighborhood in the 1990s. Members of the Pilsen community informed the research for the exhibition by participating in an oral-history interview project and helping the exhibition team connect with their neighbors, family members, and friends represented in the photographs.  

The Smart Museum hosted a summer teen program, produced in partnership with the Chicago Housing Authority, where the teens conducted research and made site visits to learn about and map the contemporary ceramics community in Chicago. Through this program, these teens charted a network of ceramics studios and kilns within the Chicagoland area and worked with artists and ceramics educators to visually represent the diversity and of the local ceramics community. Research conducted through this program informed the museum’s Ruth Duckworth: Life as a Unity exhibition, which showcases the creative output of Duckworth as a ceramics pioneer and makes use of art-historical advances of the last several decades to examine her Chicago work in a new light. 

“We hope that the relationships and knowledge that our partners are building with the support of the engagement research-and-development grants and the learning community have a life beyond Art Design Chicago and continue to grow, leading to lasting partnerships within—and beyond—the city,” said Silverman. 

To learn more about Art Design Chicago and view a calendar of exhibitions and events, please visit 

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