A city the size of Chicago offers a multitude of venues for the exploration of human creativity, with studios and galleries throughout the metropolitan area and its suburbs, but the city’s artistic nexus can be found at Lillstreet Art Center. For over four decades, the center has provided a home for artists of all varieties. Founded in 1975 by current Director Bruce Robbins and Martin Cohen, Lillstreet has stood as the gateway for the human need to interpret the world through art. As we approach the one-year anniversary of a world pandemic, Director Robbins looks back on a year marked by innovative solutions to unique challenges.
“Lillstreet had its best year in 2019,” says Robbins. “We had over 2,000 students each term enrolled in seven different departments. We came into the new year feeling good. At the end of February, we were looking forward to starting our Spring term in March. Then, COVID-19 came. We reluctantly delayed the start for three weeks, thinking, ‘We’re so brilliant,’ and then it was pushed out for two more months. We had to come up with a solution.” Robbins and his staff scrambled to set up a virtual platform for classes and, by May, were pleased and surprised to see 450 students enroll over all the departments.
Lillstreet builds its community through its wide range of classes and through its studio memberships. Robbins says, “We have students and studio members who spend over 40 hours a week here. They go from home to Starbucks to Lillstreet.” There were no virtual solutions for the time these students and artists spend in the space and community they call home. “We had to change the building around,” Robbins says, “to make the studios safe.” During the months of closure, ten new sinks were installed for sanitation stations, ventilation was upgraded, and signage was posted throughout. Member artists had been able to use their private studios throughout the closure, but studio time for students resumed in late spring. It was initially limited to three hours per week, with each student assigned to a specific space. The café was not able to open, limiting opportunities for mingling and camaraderie. Robbins laments, “It’s sad. Will we ever get back to fully open studio?”
Also part of the Lillstreet community are hundreds of children who attend art camps during the summer. Robbins decided to proceed with the camps, implementing social distancing procedures. “We had to do three things,” Robbins says, “set up new protocols, keep our fingers crossed, and pray that parents would send their kids.” Over the nine-week program, 1,206 campers came to Lillstreet, learned, created, and went home without a single case of COVID-19. The children were very compliant with the rules, wearing masks and staying distant during meals and snacks. Robbins says, “They were so compliant, we were inspired by their example. The summer was
much smaller than usual, but we were so happy to be open.” Robbins says that many parents lauded Lillstreet’s protective measures.
As Robbins observed the changes in his operation, he noticed some benefits. The physical changes to the space made working more efficient. The smaller number of people onsite had its advantages, too. He says, “I saw that maybe we had started to be too concerned about quantity and not quality. I don’t really want to go back to being as big as we were.” Robbins saw the effects in the artists, too. “The work seems more personal to me. Certainly, the Black Lives Matter movement being in the forefront affected us all. It showed us that our history is a little off.” Lillstreet and Robbins have a practice of addressing special groups. Robbins says that the organization is committed to expanding programming. Bilingual (Spanish/English) classes, programs centered around Queer themes, and a merit scholarship for BIPOC artists are examples. The center is active in the Ravenswood Community Council, and Robbins himself is an active supporter of the Mississippi Center for Justice. Nevertheless, he says, “The fact remains that we are very white. We have to look at what we have done, what we are doing, and what we can be doing.”
The past year posed questions for Lillstreet as an institution, the studio members and staff, and Robbins himself. He says that in spite of some of the positive outcomes at Lillstreet, the reduced face time with others has been a challenge. “I made a personal pandemic plan,” he quips,
“to meditate, exercise, and read, but I often found myself on the couch with Netflix. There are so many others who have been greatly affected by this. I’ve been grateful to be able to open Lillstreet, though half as many students has created twice as much work!”
Lillstreet stands as an example of how a pandemic virus has become the catalyst for a pandemic shift in human consciousness. Challenges arise and humans respond. As a center that “strives to build and maintain an environment that inspires artists to create fearlessly” Lillstreet and its founder Bruce Robbins provide a place where artistic creativity can address those challenges and change the world.