Jorge Felix is a community curator who worked with the Institute for Puerto Rican Arts and Culture from 2003-08 and continues building city wide networks through his work with the Chicago Cultural Alliance. This interview focused on the traveling exhibit that Felix spearheaded: “Not Enough Space – Art by Oscar Lopez Rivera and Carlos Alberto TorresAn Exhibit Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of Their Imprisonment.” Interview took place in June 2011.
Daniel Tucker (DT): So I wanted to first ask you about your Puerto Rican art history research generally. I’m wondering what kinds of themes and histories you’re encountering and then what kind of people and institutions stand out to you based on that history you’ve been researching.
Jorge Felix (JF): Yes, I’ve been working on both The Puerto Rican Artist Data Project and the ChicagoRICAN exhibition project. Basically, what I was intending to do, is research and create a compilation of works of arts that have been produced, created by Puerto Rican artists within the context of community-building, throughout the history and of the establishment of the Puerto Rican community in Chicago. That is the project. I was going to try to interview artists, try to document their work, pieces that they were presenting within the confines of the community, but that were not known outside of the community. And this work that is really relevant and important at this time and speaks about the history of the community.
I developed a questionnaire called The Puerto Rican Artist Data Project and I was going to be sending these to a lot of artists. It got a little bit cumbersome to get artists to respond and to answer a three page questionnaire, some in Spanish, some in English, translating things, tracking artists. Some artists have returned to Puerto Rico, some have died. And then the all this collection information was going to be used to create and design an exhibition that I was intending to call ChicagoRICAN.
In terms of the project and gathering information, I decided to be a little more organic, and less methodic in the process because questionnaires only work if I get enough answers. Then it requires cataloging every single survey into a database. Not having enough responses was not going to be really reliable. So I have been dedicated to do interview founders of the community, people that were engaged with organizations such as the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Puerto Rican Cultural Center (SRBCC), and then the Puerto Rican Culture Center (PRCC), and many other artists that don’t associate with one or another organization… Then there are people that were engaged in actions, interventions and running alternative spaces; and people who were here for a period of time but they moved out of Chicago. They came because of a specific project, they were invited or they found the community appealing; they came, they did a project, and left.
In terms of themes, something that I see constantly and really is different from other communities such as New York, and obviously the Puerto Rican community in Orlando that is a younger Puerto Rican community, is that this is a more political city. In Chicago the Puerto Rican community always has tended to drive towards politics, more than New York, more than any other city in the United States. It’s something that is really unique. I am still trying to identify why, because we don’t see, or at least haven’t found people, that came with strong politics from the outside. They were shaped here. They developed their sense of being Puerto Rican and nationalism here in Chicago. They developed that sense at the same time that African Americans and Mexicans were struggling for rights, and you see it clearly in the early Puerto Rican murals that were painted in the community. Most of these murals were not painted by Puerto Ricans, they were Mexicans, they were African American. The Puerto Rican community identified with the struggle of the Mexican and the African American community here in Chicago to create organizations like the Young Lords.
DT: When you say they had these strong politics, what were or are even some of the political themes that you see as being consistent?
JF: Just the struggle of basic civil rights. There were issues about housing, and these are really many issues still affecting today: housing, profiling, human rights, police brutality that lead actually to many of the murals, they’re depicted in many murals.
They were self-taught. Youth in the community learned to paint murals when a Mexican or African American artist came to paints a mural in the street. Who knew how some of these kids were going to be inspired and wanted to become an artist? In the past that is what happened with many of these new and young artists. They were self-taught, they didn’t have any school training and you can see it in the really naïve way that some of the murals were painted, like the one of the La Crucifixion, on North Avenue and Artesian that is really simple, almost cartoonish in the way that it is painted, but it’s still relevant to what’s happening today in the community.
Puerto Ricans living here in the United States, were treated as the other. I think that it what lead to the feeling, ‘we’re not American, we’re Puerto Rican,’ they start creating that distinction and some groups start identifying with the Puerto Rican nationalism movement and independence movement. And these Chicago residents created early organizations that were really, truly involved in that struggle for Puerto Rican independence, and at least the PRCC is still really involved with the Puerto Rican political prisoners and U.S. intervention in Puerto Rico.
So in that sense, it’s really interesting how the same conditions of us living here and not being welcome in the U.S., are the ones that drive this movement for the self-determination, to wanting to be apart. New York had a bigger Puerto Rican population and of course there was a Puerto Rican Independence movement there and the same happened, but it was a smaller group of activists than in Chicago. It was less powerful than the one here in terms of being in active communication with Puerto Rico and that led to underground movements like the FALN and all those other groups.
DT: Well speaking of independence activism and Puerto Rican political prisoners, can you introduce the Not Enough Space project and how it developed?
JF: I was educated and raised on the island. I came here to pursue my MFA in painting., I went to Ohio and spent two years there teaching and getting my masters. Then I moved to Chicago just to complete writing my thesis. That was when an MFA still required a written a thesis. Back in Puerto Rico I was involved in community service but it was from the perspective of the church. I was a minister, I went through seminary and everything, and it was always my missionary work that drove me to work in the community.
Something happened when I came to the United States, many things changed personally. One of them, I came out of the closet and separated from the church service. And here, I started finding other ways on how to continue being engaged in community and started volunteering. Something that I find is really true and interesting, and I see this happening to many people that come from Puerto Rico to the United States, to either New York or Chicago, is that you start learning, seeing Puerto Rican culture, Puerto Rican history in a different way from here.
You see it from another perspective, and here you start learning so much about Puerto Rico, that either because of the colonial process, and the educational system in Puerto Rico, where don’t tell you the whole story, the books don’t tell the entire history of the colonial relationship with the U.S. It’s something Puerto Ricans have had to learn by themselves, unless you’re raised in a politically active family.
And here in Chicago I was starting to know about the U.S. Navy and Vieques. I was living in Puerto Rico when all this struggle was happening in Vieques and heard about a bunch of people protesting but I didn’t pay attention to that. I didn’t know why it was happening. I was not even questioning why the Navy was in Vieques. So here in Chicago I started learning not only about the politics of Puerto Rico, but about the FALN, that is a subject that you will stay away from, in Puerto Rico. I started learning about the political prisoners. I didn’t even know that there were Puerto Rican political prisoners. And I started learning that story through my work with the PRCC at that time. I came to work to PRCC as a marketing associate to their HIV-AIDS program, VIDA/ SIDA, but I started volunteering my time for many other programs and at that time there was this photo exhibit about Vieques and it was a subject that I never touched, I didn’t know why, but I wanted to get involved.
The exhibit was created in Puerto Rico and it was traveling already in the U.S., and we wanted to present it at PRCC. It was called… Paz Para Los Niños de Vieques. It was about children artwork, a project of children that live in Vieques. It was a photographic work and how showed how the U.S. Navy impacted the families of these kids. So I assited in bringing that exhibit to Chicago. When it was here I tried to contextualize it with some lectures and presentations here in the community. To me the curatorial process, and the research process was an education to myself on the topic, because these were things that I never, in the past, would have dared to touch as a curator. And I started learning about all these political issues. I grew up within the commonwealth system which is different times from the times my grandfather who saw the invasion, and my father that experience through the sixties. It was a different relationship to colonialism, and they experience the before and after and understood colonialism directly. But, I grew up in an inter-mixed culture of Puerto Rican and American so I never questioned colonialism being part of me. I didn’t see it as something negative, and I still struggle with that dynamic between Puerto Rico and the U.S., and what I am. I am American, after all. Supposedly, that’s what my passport says. So I started learning about all these issues in Chicago, and eventually I get to learn about the Puerto Rican political prisoners and decide to take in another exhibition project that I would have not dared to take before.
Something that I was very critical about with PRCC and a lot of the activities that were done in the communitiy is that I felt that they were preaching to the choir all the time. They were always the same people, the same faces. And I was here only for a few years, and I was ‘why are you not promoting these issues, reaching out to the broader community. Why are you just—it would be an asset to get other communities engaged and supporting your cause.’ And they have done some efforts, but mainly in the Palestinian and African American communities., I don’t think that many people in mainstream Chicago understood what was really going on with the PRCC, in terms of the political prisoners. People had heard about the FALN, and they said these are just terrorists and that’s it. This is because most people hear news from mainstream media and do not know the story from the perspective of the community. And to be fair, to me, that is the perception that I had myself.
I heard about the National Boricua Human Rights Network and knew some of their members but never understood really their purpose. Eventually I was approached by the National Boricua Human Rights Network (NBHRN), in part, because finally they were getting that they needed to do something else. They needed to expand what they were doing, and start getting out their message to the mainstream. And I was invited to meet with them and I proposed an idea of telling the story of the two remaining Puerto Rican political prisoners through an exhibition. We got support of the network, the local chapter in Chicago. We traveled to New York, we did a presentation where people from Puerto Rico, all the different chapters of the NBHRN in the U.S. They were enchanted with the idea, but the NBHRN is really a grassroots movement, and an exhibit of this caliber, and to make it travel, was going to cost a lot of money. And that was my main question, I didn’t want to get stuck in a project that wasn’t going to move forward. We needed a financial plan to back the exhibit.
By that time, personally, I realized that my career as an artist, despite that I was productive and I was showing my artwork around and teaching, but I wasn’t able to make a living. So I went back and got another masters, in Arts Administration. Since I was learning and enjoying other aspects of Arts Administration, I developed a financial plan, a marketing plan for the entire exhibit and we presented to the NBHRN and they approved and started fundraising and the exhibition started taking off.
I learned so much going through the curatorial research process, the whole files of the hearings, the transcripts of the cases about these two political prisoners. But I wanted to do not just to present the same information that has been presented before – I wanted to go through the research process and decide myself what I wanted to present through the exhibit experience. I wanted to make an experience for people to step into a space within the confines of a jail cell marked on the floor for people to realize what Carlos Alberto Torres and Oscar López Rivera had been living for two years in isolation in a space of that size. And we developed the whole experience based in transcripts, their actual words, the actual documentation and we let people make up their own minds in terms of what they were—if they were political prisoners or not, or if they were terrorists or whatever they wanted to think.
We started traveling the exhibit. It was a success here in Chicago, I expected no less, but my test was going to be taking it to other communities. I experience people that would walk in from the street into the exhibit and not believe it at first. They would say, ‘but, this doesn’t make any sense. You’re telling me they that they weren’t able to prove anything, that their only charges, was seditious conspiracy, that these two old men are only a threat because to the U.S. because they spoke about Puerto Rican Independence.’ Well this is what the information, this is what the transcripts are saying. They never were able to prove any involvement in any terrorist act. They tried to make those connections, but they were unable to make it. And they’re sharing cells alongside rapists, killers and have spent half of their lives there. Carlos was release few years ago but Oscar is still there today.
To me, the other part that was really touching about this curatorial project was to travel with the exhibit and to meet many people who were not Puerto Ricans, that were not even Latinos, engaged in this issue. Like in San Francisco I stayed at the home of a white couple and I remember sharing when they shared their story where they spent years in underground also fighting for the Puerto Rican Independence Movement. I asked, ‘ why did you do this?’ and they said, ‘because it’s the right thing to do.‘ Sometimes I question if I would have done it myself, risk my life and with years of repercussions. And when this couple decided to come out of the underground, they had to basically turn themselves to the authorities and and spend time in jail and affecting their families and lives in a very personal way. Seeing that type of struggle by people that were not even Puerto Ricans, and in defense of the Puerto Rican national movement was really touching. It was incredible. The exhibit helped me see that.
DT: And so the exhibiting, it included reproduction of the cell that was a very physical experience and how were the other materials presented?
JF: We presented documentation, transcripts, the ruling of the judges against Carlos Alberto and Oscar at the end of the exhibit. I still remember a section where the judge makes a comparison with between them and George Washington where he said that if Washington would have been caught by the British, his sentence would have been death. And that’s what Oscar and Carlos Alberto and the rest deserved. But because he was not authorized under this seditious charge to give death, he gave them life in prison. And those are the actual transcripts which we put on view to trigger curiosity of the viewer and encourage them to investigate more because it would have been impossible to present everything. The exhibit opened with a basic chronology of the life of Oscar and Carlos Alberto before going to jail, photographs of daily life, with their family, their work in the church and with their work in the school. Oscar dressed in military—because he served for the U.S. Army. And that is way that a lot of people in the community saw them. These were people that were contributing and teaching in the community. Not only political, but also they did amazing things in the community. So we tried to give a better sense of who they were before they were labeled as terrorists by the press. Then the exhibit went through the proceedings, and then the jail experience and an area where viewers could leave messages for the prisoners that we would send after each exhibit to them.
DT: That a very powerful part of it. Can you explain a little bit about how it organizationally came together? I know that it was you, and then the National Boriqua Human Rights Network, but were there other people involved? Were there artists involved? What are the different organizationally pieces that had to come together?
JF: Well the NBHRN is an all-volunteer grassroots organization. And they have chapters throughout the whole United Sates and these chapters were the ones who were able to make the connections for the exhibit to travel to the different cities, and even in Mexico and Puerto Rico. It was supposed to travel to South America too, but that didn’t happen.
There were a lot of people involved, but the brain of this exhibit, I would say, was Alejandro Molina. He is an incredible human being. I learned so much working with him. He attended every city. He drove with me, he assisted in installation. He learned about the process of exhibition installation and also I learned about his passion. Something that is also really touching to me is that he is a Mexican-American. He is so committed to the struggle of Puerto Rican independence, and always has been, working and dedicated his life to the prisoners’ freedom, he has a very close relationship between them. He talked to Carlos Alberto and Oscar almost every week on the phone.
I remember something that happened when we were installing the exhibit the first time here in Chicago. I was getting a little frustrated because some things were not happening like they were supposed to, basically this is the first time that I am working in a large community project like this. I had worked on smaller community projects where the process is more organic, but in this one, we wanted some level of professionalism, to get things wall mounted properly, that looked like a museum quality. And also we thought that was what Carlos Alberto and Oscar stories deserved. We thought that their artwork and their stories deserved respect. And one day I was talking about my frustrations to Alejandro responds to me, ‘why are you doing this?” And I was just blank and could not answer him. And I asked him back, ‘Well why are you doing it?’ He said, ‘because this is going to free them.’ And at that point I just answered back to him, ‘Do you really think that this exhibit is going to free Carlos Alberto and Oscar? And he said, ‘well, why would I be doing this if I didn’t believe that?’ To me, I realized at that point that he really believed that this exhibit was going to change minds and was going to create a whole movement and free Carlos and Oscar. At that point this was the first exhibit and, we didn’t know really how far it was going to go. But this man was really believing in this exhibit. He was really proud of what was happening and what it was going to create. I’ve worked in a lot of exhibits and its an educational process more than anything—I guess as a curator I separate from the public to an extent. If they get it, they get it. If they don’t, they don’t. But he was really secure that this was going to work. And that’s what he was doing. At that point I realized that I had to take that line of approach every time that I’m working on a project. I have to believe it, to be working on it. Because if not I would be disappointed all the time.
DT: That is a great story and a good transition. I know that you came in and were working at the Institute for Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, did a lot of events and art projects like Barrio Arts Fest and the Film Fest, and your work was really situated in Humbodlt Park and the Puerto Rican community in Chicago more generally. I’m just curious about this idea that you started to develop about being a community-based curator and how you kind of see that as being different than other ways of approaching curating?
JF: The way that I’ve always defined a community curator is as a person, an individual, a curator that is an expert in a specific community, in a specific community area and understands collaboration, cross-cultural collaboration and utilizes the community resources to curate, to present an exhibit. Curatorial work is research and it’s just understanding what are the assets of a community, how it can get a message across with the resources that exist within the community, breaking away from the white space and white cube gallery setting, and the museum standards and letting the process be dictated by the community. It’s something that I think has been, since the 90s, talked about more and a lot of museums have started adopting this practice, dedicating more of their spaces to help make those connections. And luckily here in Chicago we have many of the mega-museums downtown, at least some starting to make those approaches, like through working with the Chicago Cultural Alliance.
My experience at IPRAC, the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, was where I really developed my sense of style and my curatorial practice. Coming from Puerto Rico to this community, I had to always listen—something that I always noticed was that I was always seen as an outsider. People always would say ‘you don’t understand the history and you don’t understand this or the other’ about Chicago. So I always saw myself looking at the community, trying to understand all the dynamics and why this group doesn’t talk to the other, why those artists are separated from this other, why. So I learned about a lot of things that happened in the community and tried to remain neutral and be able to communicate with all the groups and negotiate projects, coordinate programs, that many people, would tell me were surprised that never happened before.
As I mentioned with Not Enough Space, I always notice there was this sense of isolation of the Puerto Rican community as separated from other groups in Chicago. I think this is something that happened because it is a Chicago thing. We have so many segregated communities that they share a border and they don’t understand what is happening couple of blocks away. Always enjoyed to break with that and to understand the value of gaining ties with other communities in Chicago. I remember a project that I did with Ukrainian National Museum on Chicago Avenue. Ukrainian Village is next to Humbolt Park. I remember when I proposed to do a project with surrounding communities, I asked the IPRAC board, ‘you know of the history of other neighbors organizations, like the Ukrainian Museum a couple of blocks away. Asked if anybody at IPRAC made any contact with them?’ Nobody could recall. And I started that relationship, gathering artists from each community, getting them together. And to me it was amazing to see when they started identifying commonalities across their history. I remember the musicians involved in the project: we had some Ukrainian bandura players, and they were talking about the history of the bandura guitar in the Ukraine and how that instrument represented a nationalistic sentiment in the community., That it was banned by the Russians, and anybody that was captured with a bandura in their home would be killed in the middle of the plaza. And there was a whole history to this instrument. And then we have all these musicians players of Puerto Rican bomba drums, talking about slavery and how slaves in the past used bomba drums to communicate and when a slave was caught with a drum sending messages through the drumming, they were killed too. So immediately they started making connections from Europe and to the Caribbean and at the end they made a very entertaining program that apart from the value of the historical information, was getting two communities together. There was a jamming session at the end with bandura and bomba drums. And people love it, it was sold out and repeated twice. This type of program takes a lot of time negotiating relationships, times, and volunteers and to me the work during the six years I was at the IPRAC, it was just a great school on how I approach cross-cultural projects like that.
DT: That is a great example. Can you talk a little bit about the advantages or disadvantages of having an organizational home like IPRAC verses now you’re more independent, which probably gives you a lot more freedom, but maybe you don’t have the same kind of access that you would have if you used a sort of institutional name.
JF: Yes, it makes a big difference having the support of an organization. In a sense, it’s having a paycheck, a monthly paycheck [chuckles] makes a big difference. Now, as an independent curator I am always looking for projects, that I try to find projects that are relevant to my practice, but sometimes you have to make a living and you have to adopt projects that are more commercial than educational. It was a great moment at IPRAC and I think it laid ground, a strong base, for the organization to become what they are moving forward with now. Even before having a building, people was talking already about about a Puerto Rican Museum. And there was not a museum built. There was still not even a museum certification adopted. But people from many museums were making phone calls asking they wanted to partner and establish a link with IPRAC. Because of the program activity many people thought that we had a building completed when my office was still a trailer in middle of the the park. I never got to work inside of the building actually. I never got to move into the new building. Now IPRAC has a strong base now and a great space in Humboldt Park and I hope they would be be able to move forward from there and become a museum that will cater to the entire local community, but also the national Puerto Rican community.
DT: It is an interesting experiment to engage in where you sort of strategically make yourself seem bigger or more established than maybe you are. Maybe you’re still working out of your home or out of the trailer in the park, but you can almost get this myth going, like ‘we’re a museum, we’re a whole thing, an institution’ and I think that that is very powerful in people’s imagination.
JF: It’s powerful and could work both ways. Because they thought that it was going to be easier to get it done, and a lot of financial promises were done. Supposedly when I got started in 2003, the museum was going to open their doors the following year. It took seven years before they were able to move into and open their doors. So there were a lot of people watching who became disappointed. Some artists were even approached by the board to come meet for the planning of exhibits, and then they had to push forward telling them that it was not going to happen in the expected timeline. So I’m really glad that they are finally able to open and recapture the momentum. Because I know a lot of people were questioning what was going to happen, and it was unfortunately that the economy and everything went sour at the right moment when the building was going to be finished. But I believe they now, they’re revamping the organization and I heard that they have a new board.
DT: Are there any examples from the Chicago Cultural Alliance that you can share of ways that art or these kind of community centers are being used to address or engage the segregation you described?
JF: I’m really familiar with Chicago Culture Alliance, I was on the founding board. Actually, the organization got started by work led by the Center of Cultural Understanding and Change at the Field Museum which was in charged of creating linkages with communities in Chicago and The Field Museum, this program was cut three years ago for lack of funds. But when it existed, it was about creating cross-cultural programming at least twice a year with a community ethnic museum. We have, in Chicago, more museums than are in New York. These museum leaders started meeting through The Fields Museum program and understanding what’s happening across communities. When this program was defunded, a lot of us—and at this point I was working at IPRAC,—a lot of us were questioning how we would continue communicating, how we would continue creating programs amongst ourselves. We were identifying so many commonalities. The profile of a community museums is that they always serve a dual-purpose of being both a social service organization connected with a museum. That is different than museums downtown. Some of them, they don’t have accreditation, some of them do. Some of them, most of them, have amazing collections. Some of them, they don’t have the resources to keep them up. So looking at all these needs tied us together.
A group of volunteer community members from The Field Museum, the Native American community, the Puerto Rican, Mexicans and African American started meeting and discussing, and decided that it was time to create a plan to continue this relationship. And at that point, we didn’t know if it was an organization, an association or what it was going to be. But we went as leaders and we pitched the story to a couple of foundations and ended up getting the support of The Joyce Foundation and The Northern Trust and others. Even when we were not incorporated as an entity we got the money to investigate and to hire a consultant to start developing this idea. And we found out that the city tried to do something like this many years ago, also. I understand that even other groups had tried to do something similar it never took off. So we started identifying why it didn’t work out in the past and tried to address those issues.
DT: What were some of the reasons?
JF: I think it was just about the timing. Relationships were still not forged. When you have the Chicago Cultural Center initiating a call, to create this association with the other museums but none of these communities knew each other. But in our case we knew each other. We already knew that we’re sharing the same challenges, and in this case, the process was driven by us and not by the city which often involved a power struggle relationship between city hall and the communities.
And we convened with every community in Chicago that wanted to be a part of this, every museum. And they appointed, a community board. That’s were I was selected, this original group of five or seven Chicago cultural workers that met almost weekly, for almost a year, developing a business plan with the hired consultant and pitching the story to more foundations and getting support and explaining with this concept of this alliance of museums. A big concern was that we wanted to avoid competition for funding and so we wanted to find ways to capitalize as a group. It is easier for foundations to give money, a big amount of money, to one organization, to a big museum to do a program where they are going to partnership instead of a many smaller amounts to community organizations. And this was always a struggle when you have a big museum or a big organization or a city/governmental department coming into a community to try to something with the community voice but from the perspective of looking down to the community in this case. We will be seen as equal, this group of museums, and now have would be seen and have the same power as the Field Museum or the Art Institute. Soemtimes it’s easier for a foundation to give the money to one organization like us, and then we require that each organization apply if they want to be a part of a specific program. So we’re providing assistance for the collection, hiring and sharing grant writers, that they write for a group and matching financial opportunities.
AlSo we are continuing what The Field Museum did in terms of programs but now more driven by specific issues that are relevant to the communities like Immigration and Aging and so on. I have been personally delighted to see something taking off, and to be able to contribute to the city in this way. I think that the Alliance, now, is in a position where it’s moving forward and now we’re going into our fifth year. And we’re really strong; we have a great executive director that we have shaped from the bottom. She didn’t have experience at first as an executive but with coaching and the guidance of CCA Leadership Council now we’re driving public policy, cultural policy in Chicago and we’re recognized nationally.
DT: I think that you and the other people you work with in the alliance have a unique perspective on the city and it’s cultural resources. I think about how much energy goes into, in the Arts generally, into dealing with space issues. Sometimes it’s finding space to do the work, to exhibit the work yourself or trying to access a limited number of elite institutions that don’t have that much space anyway. I just wonder what kind of thoughts you have about the massive infrastructure that exists across the city in these neighborhood cultural centers and museums and what your vision for how they can be engaged with in different or new ways?
JF: There are a lot of ideas around. And yes, space is a big struggle. Originally CCA was granted a little space at the Swedish American Museum, and now we’re renting out a larger space at the Irish-American Cultural Center. The Irish center is really fortunate to have their space, and they should be used as a model on how to capitalize in a large building like that. They have an amazing building. I didn’t realize until recently this but it was the old Truman College. And this is an amazing structure, really. It’s humongous. And they had from a pub within their space, and they rent spaces for revenue making that supports their organization and the building is so alive. Sometimes we can have in the middle of our meetings the tap dancing classes around it, the hallways are so alive with classes of all sorts. And they have a theater company also housed in the building. And they have been able to make it.
Another one is the Dank Haus, which just applied for membership to the Chicago Cultural Alliance. We went to interview the director and a member of the board and we asked some basic questions about their finances, and we asked about who are their main funders. And they said they don’t know how to apply for grants and were hoping to learn by joining CCA. And the Dank Haus building is huge. And I said, ‘how do you support yourself and maintain this building?’ They said just activities. They said that the German Festival that happens in Lincoln Square basically provides most of the money, and they rent out the building and they were able to put together all their programs and social services with the revenue. So they’re self-sustained, and they know how to do it,. So now We want to find a way to share that knowledge that some communities have with others that are not able to put together.
For example the Cambodian community is one of the smallest ethnic communities in Chicago, but they have the largest museum budget for their museum. How they are able to manage to find all this funding to support this museum in a small community while there is a quarter million Puerto Ricans in Chicago and more in the suburbs And IPRAC struggled for many years to try to build this museum on the park with a smaller budget. So Identifying this knowledge on how to do business as a non profit, and how to share the resources without competing with each other is something that we’re trying to tackle right now.
In terms of space with the city, there are so many empty lots, empty firehouses and buildings. I am part of theatre company that wants a space, but I am really hesitant about getting into an owned space. Because it’s a big commitment and to do it you have to have the structure to support that building , to do the business of getting the place in shape, and maintain it, rent it to provide revenue , and have the staff that you need to maintain to do programs. And this is not always is the best way.
Right now the Chicago Cultural Alliance, we’re in our fifth year, and we are thinking is this the right time to get our own space. We’re thinking about renting out a bigger space or trying to get a space of our own and do the same that these other organizations are doing. But I don’t know. That is something that changes and varies from community to community, from organization or organization. Not long ago we were talking to Michael Kaiser from the Kennedy Center. It took them 25 years before the Kennedy Center could be built. They were producing programing in other houses for 20 years. So CCA is okay. Sometimes the burden of a building facility is not worth it if you’re not prepared for that. A lot of people jump ahead too fast. That is the question that I always had at IPRAC. The smallest budget was for programs, and I was able to do magic during those six years with the funding I was able to raise which was around $250K per year. But while I was in charge of fund raising for all the programs, the board was fundraising for the building. The board was Raising millions for a building and then I was struggling to get money that will support artists in the community and hire educators and all that. That was always the second option. People believed that we have a museum even without the walls. So at some point why do we need the walls?
DT: Are there are any other experiences through your curatorial work in Chicago that you feel have been either projects or encounters that have changed the way you thought about what you wanted to do, or that you thought about an idea or a politics?
JF: Yes, one that just popped in my head, and this was just about when I was setting up my office space for IPRAC, I received this phone call from the MCA. They were having this huge retrospective on Dan Peterman’s work partnering with the Chicago Park District to bring some huge sculptures that were going to be placed on some parks. One of them was Humboldt Park. And the MCA basically went the Humbolt Park and announced this community meeting. And I was there and they said ‘this is what we’re going to be doing, and we’re going to be bringing this amazing artist, these amazing sculptures and it’s going to be during this time and we would like you to do some program around it.’ So most of the organizations at the meeting said: ‘who are you to tell us what to do—to come into our park. Who is this artist? Why this artist? And why do you need to meet with us now if you have this plan ahead of time? Why were we not counseled from the beginning? Who is funding this?’And it became a mess. And the community didn’t want the artwork in Humbolt Park.
I was called to mediate with the community artists , the park district, the curator at the MCA. It was really interesting because I don’t think no matter what I said the MCA would have not understood what I was saying. They only understood that they were coming in and doing good to the community., The way they approached the program, was arrogant. They were trying to impose something on a community that has a history, there are so many artists already locally producing work and that have tried to work with the park district and not been allowed to put artwork at the park. And now you’re coming with this artist and because is the MCA you’re able. Well… So I don’t think that the MCA curator never got it but I found a very commited person in the education department that was able to move things along at the museum’s end. ., I was able to negotiate and to go back to the community, and to introduce Dan Peterman so people get to understand his work, and understand the value of the message. Because also Dan got caught in middle of the situation. He didn’t know that this was going to happen or how the negotiators of this projects rook place. And he’s not profiting other than just exhibiting his work. SO he got caught, but we were able to do some receptions and some local bars to sponsor the receptions, and getting local artists and Dan Peterman to know each other and to see how they will engage and to find the commonalities and to discuss their differences as well.
In most cases the basic commonatilities and differences among artists are the same struggle for white artist, a black artist, a Latino artists: they’re the same. You want to show your work, you need housing, you need space, you need a job. It is the same for all. Of course, they’re going to come differently because of culture, the cultural experience, but the basis and need is the same and discussing why some have better access than others is important for both.
And it really became an amazing project that was adopted by the community. But it was not until that process happened that it was able to be a success. That taught me a lot. I was coming into the community trying to get into the curatorial practice specifically departing from the museum and gallery spaces perspective. It also helped me to understand community work, and that you can not expect that a community is homogenous.
For example, there are a lot of statues on the park, representing the different communities that have lived in the area: the Norwegian, the Jewish, the Polish. I It’s the Puerto Rican community’s belief that they should also be able to leave a mark of their presence in the park and that hasn’t happened. They tried to do that years ago with the statue of Puerto Rican nationalist and patriot Pedro Albizu Campos. That backfired. The park opposed, but what was interesting was that some Puerto Ricans opposed as well because of the political connotations of the figure, instead of somebody that was more cultural or neutral. So it’s going to be interesting was get in the park.
There is so much diversity, so many differences and conflicts within communities. Not only in the Puerto Rican community but in Indian and Chinese where several organizations are struggling for power; for financial resources, everything. And you always have to,—the curator basically has to get in middle of the situations and try to negotiate those relationships and resources. That’s my goal, that’s my work.
DT: How should a community curator engage in a “community” when you are saying it can be such a contested field?
JF: You just have to adapt and change from place to place, from community to community. That is the first thing you have to do to determine: what is the definition of this community? Because it could be determined by culture and the population that is there. It could be defined by arts, or like in Boystown. Supposedly it’s a gay community, but the gay population has left. It’s just a place where gay people go there now. So some are more business-oriented, some are true communities, family. Within Humboldt Park a lot of people are using the term the Greater Humbolt Park, because they understand that the Puerto Rican community always was beyond Humboldt Park. And with the gentrification pushing west, the recent census shows that the population of Puerto Ricans declined a great deal in Humbolt Park. Now the largest Puerto Rican population is in Belmont Cragin. There had been a lot of jokes and comments that the Paseo Boriqua flags were going to be moved to Belmont Cragin. So communities are transient while there are affected by socio economic issues. Whens it going to stop? While this community moves you have to understand all the dynamics. After assessing the community as a whole then you can try to tackle whatever project you are working on.
Make an appointment to visit the Never The Same archives where materials about Not Enough Space and the Institute for Puerto Rican Arts and Culture can be viewed in person.