When church & art collide

By Meryl Fulinara

In an unassuming building, nestled between condos and commercial space, sits a foundation unshaken, even from the wrath of the Great Chicago Fire, but not by the gentrification of Chicago’s University Village.

With the upheaval of new developments in and around University Village, the aged building that housed South Union Arts wouldn’t garner a second look if a passer-by wasn’t seeking it out.

The closing of South Union Arts on Sept. 6 was a huge surprise for the curators of the space. Getting word that the show they were planning might be their last-if it even happened at all-caught them off guard.

“We didn’t know if we were going to have electricity, if the work was all going to go together, and we were just so stressed; but it ended up being amazing,” Droege said. “We had an incredible corn maze, great musicians and awesome [art] installations. It all blew my mind; it came together so well.”

South Union Arts’ last show, a corn roast on Sept. 6, felt like a big party-almost like a family picnic-Arnold said.

“People had come out and said they were sorry that that was the first time they’d ever been there,” Arnold said. “It was good we had that last show so people got a taste of what South Union Arts was.”

Anna Cerniglia, a Columbia alumna and the original curator for the space, said some people would come out to the shows just to see the historical building.

The church, first constructed in 1863 for the German United Evangelical Zion congregation, has since housed a Romanian synagogue, a Baptist church and most recently the South Union Arts Center-a visual art and performance space that has been part of Chicago’s art community for the past four years.

The building, home to South Union Arts, 1352 S. Union Ave., is a structure identified by the Maxwell Street Foundation-which aides in preserving and conserving the history of the old Maxwell Street neighborhood-as having deep historical significance.

According to the Maxwell Street Foundation’s historical documents, the church is the earliest documented structure within the district.

South Union Arts first opened its doors in 2005 after the closing of the Bottom Lounge’s original location, 3206 N. Wilton Ave. Brian Peterson of MP Productions, who ran both, then decided to take on a new space that would be home to a place where music and art could coincide.

“We just wanted to be able to incorporate music and art and somehow tie them together,” Cerniglia said. “When we decided on the church [Brian Peterson of MP productions] found it and thought it would be interesting to try it out as a space.”

Worn theater seats fill the sanctuary where the bands used to play.

Layer upon layer of upholstery revealed worn and tattered fabrics. The walls were still adorned with art installations and murals. Nick-knacks like playschool toys, typewriters and old TV sets can be found scattered throughout the space, even now after its closing.

The transformed church hoped to give young artists an outlet to show their work and have it be seen in a whole new way, in a church that was seen as a piece of art itself. But like its predecessors, the South Union Arts Center is now just a memory of the past.

Caitlin Arnold, one of the space’s curators, said after four years of showcasing art and music, it was time for South Union Arts to close its doors due to the lack of funding that was coming in.

“It was all dependent [on] Brian Peterson, he just had so many projects, and South Union Arts was becoming almost a burden for him,” said Stacee Droege, a 25-year-old Columbia photography alumna. “I don’t think he felt like we could handle it. I’m not really sure, but either way, he wasn’t making enough money off of it and couldn’t put enough time into it, and the idea of having a DIY space kind of wore off.”

The makeshift space turned a church into a completely arts-affiliated place, said Anni Rossi, a musician who played at South Union Arts about 10 times in the past two years.

South Union Arts was a space where acoustic music thrived and the people in charge capitalized on that, Rossi said.

Artists from all over the country played for that reason, like Calvin Johnson from indie-pop group Mt. Eerie and freak-folk musician Brendon Massei, also known as Viking Moses.

“[Shows at South Union Arts] didn’t feel like any other show I have ever played,” Rossi said. “All I can say is that I just felt like it was a really open place- open to things happening in a venue that normal venues would never let happen.”

“Anyone who stepped foot in that place to play their music or show their work did it for the love of art and to share their art, their vision and their passion with other people,” Arnold said.

One of those artists was Droege, who had just finished working at a house gallery when she started helping out at South Union Arts in March by cleaning up the walls and contacting all the artists-doing everything, big or small, the curators couldn’t do.

“Working in that space and having all those incredible artists and musicians come together and collaborate was incredible,” Droege said.

The space was run by artists for artists.

“I [personally] think it is amazing; it’s like recycling. Why tear this structure down that has so much history in itself?” Arnold said.

“[Churches] are generally made for acoustics, so if you have a band playing, that’s made for that. And they’re going to sound amazing.”

The curators of the space thought it was important for the gallery to be a free venue with all-ages music shows. They asked only for a donation at the door.

“We were young when we started, so people would help us out a lot and donate and come to the shows,” Cerniglia said.

Rossi said she had a good experience getting paid from the donation money at the door and being supported.”[Asking for donations at the door] was a really effective [method] for all-ages shows,” Rossi said.

“And I thought the space was really unique and amazing, but unfortunately, the location was kind of its downfall. I know so many people that would be so excited for a show, and it was just too hard to commute to that neighborhood.”

South Union Arts was a DIY gallery off the beaten path, but for those who happened upon it, it was a discovery they would always remember.

“It’s hands-down my favorite place in Chicago; I have nothing but good things to say about [South Union Arts],” Rossi said. “I realized it was a labor of love for everyone involved, and I knew it was going to come to an end at some point.”

South Union Arts was not just a typical art space for Arnold, Cerniglia and the rest of the people who walked through the doors of the church. There was a feeling of something bigger than themselves-community.

“Considering the space and what it was, we had a lot of people who really appreciated what we did and how hard we worked,” Cerniglia said. “We were really involved with the community, so people who looked into it a little bit more understood and wanted to get involved.”

Most of the people who were involved, although sad to see it go, are still trying to keep their foot in the art scene door. Cerniglia is currently the assistant director at All Rise Gallery, 1370 W. Grand Ave., and Arnold is working on her photography thesis.

“I feel like I’ve closed a chapter in my life,” Cerniglia said. “It was nice having a space where I could develop ideas and create beautiful shows. [But] we close one chapter and we open other ones.”