Edgewater progam inspires a community

By Brian Dukerschein

It began with a cookbook. In January 2009, Rae Ann Cercle, an Edgewater real estate manager who sat on the boards of the neighborhood’s community council and Chamber of Commerce, was looking for a way to promote a recipe book written by the two organizations. After noticing several boarded-up and darkened storefronts, she approached one of the building owners about displaying the cookbook in the window. He agreed, and Cercle created a window display for the book with work from local artists.

“The area looked so bad and so dark,” Cercle said. “It reminded me of people with their teeth out. There were these big holes, so to put in art and light the windows, it just looked great.”

Cercle posted a flier asking for additional art. Her phone began ringing, and she realized there were numerous artists in the neighborhood anxious to display their work. She began asking more building owners to allow her to create window displays for local artists in their vacated storefronts, and Edgewater Artists in Motion was born.

Pop-up art galleries are nothing new. Since the start of the recession, artists and organizations around the country have been using vacant storefronts to display artwork and create temporary galleries. EAIM, however, has grown into a full-fledged movement, partnering with more than 100 artists and countless volunteers to organize street fairs, neighborhood art walks and a pop-up gallery, all with the goal of using art as a tool to improve the community.

“The idea behind Artists in Motion is to really find a synergy between celebrating artists and art here in the neighborhood, while also encouraging people to spend more time out in the commercial areas to support the businesses,” said Jay Delaney, president and CEO of the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce. “Not only does it give people a reason to be out to areas they might not otherwise visit, but it also adds so much character to the neighborhood.”

It was the desire to help the community that allowed EAIM to grow as quickly as it did, according to Cercle. By the end of 2009, she and a group of volunteers had more than 50 artists displayed in 28 windows throughout the neighborhood, including several at the Berwyn, Bryn Mawr, Thorndale and Granville stops of the Red Line. Cercle said having the windows lit up next to the train stations received a very positive response from the entire community and made a big difference in public safety.

One of the building owners Cercle reached out to was Bill Platt, president and principal of the real estate development firm Access Group Chicago. The company had just finished construction on a new condo building at 1134 W. Granville Ave. and was having trouble finding tenants to fill its ground floor retail spaces. Platt said it was easy to see the benefits of the program.

“Any aesthetically pleasing space is a bonus, just in terms of having a positive effect on pedestrians and traffic passing by instead of just looking at raw, vacant retail space,” Platt said. “Art was bringing a little life to a place that hadn’t had much activity.”

He said he believes having art in the windows made the retail spaces easier to rent because it showed potential businesses the area has an active and supportive community.

Artists in Motion first stepped out of the windows and onto the street in July 2010 when it hosted “Galeries de Granville,” a street fair featuring local artists, dancers and musical performers. According to Cercle, the festival was a “thank you” to the artists for allowing EAIM to display their work, which is not explicitly for sale while in the windows.

EAIM’s interest in helping both the community and local artists was met with enthusiasm by Alderman Harry Osterman (48th Ward) after his February 2011 election, according to Cercle. She said Osterman was specifically concerned about safety in the neighborhood around Thorndale Avenue following a double homicide on Feb. 27 that left one police officer wounded by gunfire. EAIM, which already had a presence in the area with its series of painting and photography workshops led by local artists, partnered with the Chamber of Commerce to bring the Edgewater Arts Festival to Thorndale Avenue in an effort to revitalize the street.

EAIM took its commitment one step further and launched “Le Gallery Thorndale,” a pop-up art gallery in a former deli at 1106 W. Thorndale Ave. sponsored by the Chamber and Osterman. According to Jessica Lucas, the gallery’s art director, EAIM had two weeks to put together a show in a building that had been vacant for two years. After applying many gallons of paint and reaching out to new talent, Lucas said the space has been a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

“I think the community has been very happy to have us here,” she said. “Everyone who stops in has been thrilled to have the space occupied, to have something here. We’re adding something to the street. There were [negative] things happening on the sidewalk that we’re preventing with our presence.”

As is the nature of a pop-up, the Thorndale gallery will close on Sept. 30, although Cercle said EAIM will retain use of the space for artists and the community until the building is leased. Lucas said the 40 artists exhibiting at the gallery have benefited along with the community.

“Things have changed,” Lucas said. “A lot of organizations have gone under, and a lot of galleries have closed. Having an organization like this has done tremendous things for the artists. There’s this physical support, but also the general support of people discovering [what’s] going on in their neighborhood.”

Edgewater resident Courtney Gray discovered EAIM in October 2010 after spotting art in windows around the neighborhood. Gray, a photographer who had never publicly displayed her work, soon had 17 photographs on display on Granville Avenue. She said the decision had a swift and positive impact on her career.

“I got some very positive reactions, and it snowballed from there,” Gray said. “I launched my own website and was an artist at the Edgewater Arts Festival. It’s definitely helped me get more opportunities now that people can see what my photography is. It’s been a great outlet to get my work out there.”

Gray said she thinks EAIM’s efforts have created a stronger community of artists in Edgewater and cited the many new businesses in the area as a sign the organization is having an impact.

Delaney agreed.

“I think we’re doing really well here in Edgewater when you look through the lens of knowing what the overall economy is like,” Delaney said. “Certainly, we’d always like to see more of the empty spaces filled up, but on the whole, I think we’re doing really well. I think it’s been a number of factors, but I do think Edgewater Artists in Motion is certainly one of them.”

According to Cercle, many of the storefronts that once displayed art, including Platt’s on Granville Avenue, have been leased by new businesses. Although she is proud of everything the organization and its volunteers have accomplished, she said she wants to refocus on EAIM’s original purpose—beautifying the neighborhood with art in the windows. High on her list is reclaiming the storefronts outside the Bryn Mawr station, which have been papered over since a remodel earlier this year.

“I’m really looking for the bigger picture, and that’s where we’re going now,” Cercle said. “Our mission is to help the businesses, which helps the residents and helps everyone here.”

EAIM and the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce will be holding their second EDGEArt Art Walk on Oct. 13, from 6 – 9 p.m. The event will start with free receptions at That Little Mexican Cafe, 1055 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., and Tango Che dance studio, 5602 N. Ridge Ave. At each location, participants can pick up fliers listing the venues showcasing artwork and offering refreshments and discounts. Many artists will be on hand to discuss their work.

For more information on the EDGEArt Art Walk, including a list of participating businesses and artists, visit Edgewater.org/EdgeArt.