Group of Black Women Artists Withdraws From Chicago Architecture Biennial

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A group of three artists has withdrawn from the 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB), citing “a lack of honest investment” and “patterns of entitlement to Black women’s labor.” On the day of the show’s opening, the group described obstacles and delays on part of municipal agencies and CAB in an open letter.

Founded by Andrea Yarbrough in partnership with Ebere Agwuncha and Chandra Christmas-Rouse, In ℅: Black women (ICOBW) was listed among the contributors to the biennial’s fourth edition until just a few days ago. The team was invited by CAB’s artistic director, David Brown, whose research into the transformation of vacant city lots informed this year’s theme, “The Available City.”

But while ICOBW supports Brown’s initiative, the group says a series of alleged failures encumbered the realization of its project and led them to forego the event altogether. From concerns over inadequate compensation — a $1,000 honorarium for the entire team — to claims of a lack of support throughout the production process, the issues raised in the letter epitomize the physical, bureaucratic, and institutional barriers that keep communities from accessing public space.

ICOBW proposed activating an underutilized lot in the South Side as a skate park for public use with activities facilitated by local organizations, including weekly skate and dance lessons and a collaborative collage wall and library. Titled “University” after the nearby El stop on the Chicago Transit Authority’s Green Line that was notoriously razed in 1997, impairing the impoverished, primarily Black neighborhood’s transportation infrastructure, the project would “utilize skateboarding to reclaim space.”

The vacant lot at 1148 E. 63rd Street in Chicago.

However, the group was forced to retool the design to incorporate only the pavement area for the installations as a result of restrictions imposed on city-owned lots. But just five weeks before the opening, the group did not yet know whether the Community Investment Corporation (CIC), a Chicago-based lender and partial owner of the area, would grant them access to the space. The biennial was struggling to secure the insurance required to host youth skating lessons at the site, “despite weeks of reassuring us that they were close to attaining coverage,” ICOBW said.  

Additionally, “after spending countless hours in virtual meetings, updating budgets and designs, we were still unclear with what we had access to in terms of funding from CAB and how/when those funds would be dispersed,” the group said.

Jonah Hess, Director of Community Initiatives at CIC, confirmed that it was in conversations with CAB and had raised the issue of skate park insurance. (Hess also told Hyperallergic that CIC had provided access to another of its lots, at 1140 E. 63rd Street, for a separate biennial project by Matri-Archi(tecture).)

Once again, ICOBW adapted: within 48 hours, they turned over a new proposal featuring flexible “furniture” that could also function as skateable objects, like ramps, rails, and speedbumps, as a workaround to skatepark insurance. But a quote sourced by CAB for fabrication of the pieces, totaling $27,830, was roughly four times the proposed budget; the show’s organizers suggested making changes to reduce the cost. 

The final straw for ICOBW came when they learned of CAB’s intention to have Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot take a photo on the site during its opening weekend press tour. Advocates of police reform have criticized Lightfoot, who recently released a city budget that boosts police spending to $1.9 billion, for failing to properly address violent policing. 

“Taken together, this solidified our experience of the Chicago Architecture Biennial as devoid of any authentic commitment to elevating the voices and practices of the South and West side communities that they parachute into,” ICOBW wrote. “Rather than harnessing the power of architecture and design to cultivate community-led spaces, CAB’s impact was limited in scope, their platform performative in nature.”

The artists announced their withdrawal from the show, opting instead to organize workshops for local Black women and non-binary participants to build “sittable objects” — defined as flexible objects with a seating and tabling surface — independently of the biennial.

The workshops hosted by ICOBW “fostered a space for folks to meet new people/reconnect, learn about one another and build in a safe environment,” the team said.

In an email to Hyperallergic, CAB director Rachel Kaplan said, “As a city-wide program, we invite all local officials to visit and encourage their constituents to attend, from the mayor to aldermen, and all sites are free and open to the public as a central part of our mission.” 

Kaplan acknowledges the constraints that hindered ICOBW’s proposal but insists CAB did everything in its power to support the team and troubleshoot issues, including exploring all possible options for insurance and fabrication. Making adjustments along the way, she says, is an intrinsic part of working with city spaces, and “many of the projects shifted, scaled and evolved from their initial proposal in response to various variables.” 

“Their project idea evolved over the course of the process, and it became clear the project needed more time than six-months to be fully realized,” Kaplan told Hyperallergic. “CAB respected that they wanted to stay true to a vision we couldn’t realize with the budget, time, or insurance requirements. We have the utmost respect for ICOBW and their work and hope to be able to work with them in one way or another in the future.”

In Kaplan’s words, the process was a lesson in “the possibilities and limitations in accessing space in the city.” To the members of ICOBW, however, the hurdles they faced are a testament to institutional patterns of “over-promising and under-delivering.” 

“CAB is the largest architecture show in North America, they can invest the resources into learning how to better support emergent grassroots organizations,” the group told Hyperallergic. Its members continued on to encourage the biennial to “endorse #DefundCPD and use their platform to actually draw attention to the needs of Black communities.”

“And we know they won’t. Because CAB, like most institutions, are not accountable to the very people they use to promote their platforms. They’re accountable to their boards, funders, and international audiences,” they added.

When CAB invited the team to host a program after ICOBW announced its withdrawal last week, and asked for a meeting to learn how the biennial could improve, the group turned down the offer.

“The conversation left us wondering if they actually read our letter and understood that we would not be engaging in the additional unpaid labor of ‘listening sessions on how it feels to be engaging with institutions that do not proactively address systems of harm in its programs, exhibits and engagements,’” the team said.

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