Friday, June 24, 2016

Update, June 2016

In 1993, a fellow named Mike Lash offered me the opportunity to work on a stained glass window exhibit at O’Hare Airport.  To assist with my research, he suggested I meet a Mr. Samuelson over in Landmarks.   Mr. Samuelson was very helpful.  He told me about the windows, the buildings they were from, the ways to conserve them, and how his friend Richard Nickel was arrested for saving a window from a Frank Lloyd Wright building.

Subsequent to that, we worked on Chicago’s first public art streetscape.  Tim gave historical background and I lead the process that commissioned 20 artists to create over 200 artworks in a 1.5 mile section of Martin Luther King Drive in historic Bronzeville.   We got it done in time for the 1996 Democratic Convention and I think Bill Clinton drove past.    Also with Tim’s help, I created the Chicago Tribute Markers of Distinction program, intended to commemorate the creations and innovations of Chicagoans - from Richard Wright to the Marx Brothers, Ida B. Wells and Enrico Fermi -  in the neighborhoods where they lived.  I wanted to inspire current residents and attract visitors to places they might not otherwise visit, like Archibald Motley’s little bungalow on W. 60th Street, Lorraine Hansberry’s girlhood home in Woodlawn, and the 2-flat greystone in Bronzeville that Lil Hardin bought for herself and her husband Louis Armstrong. 

When I moved to Cultural Planning, Tim and I curated the Tree Studios show (with Barton Faist) and in the process worked to save that historic building and tell the story of the artists it housed.  Behind the scenes, I conducted the Pilsen as an Art District Study, enlisting Artspace Projects and a local consulting firm to look at strategies for strengthening and uniting the nascent artist colonies in that fascinating and diverse neighborhood.   I assisted in various ways with Chicago’s first two city-assisted artist live/work developments – Switching Station Artists Lofts in East Garfield Park and ACME Artists Condominiums in Bucktown – and later provided counsel to the Bronzeville Artist Lofts, the Cornerstone Development Artists Housing in Washington Park, the Hairpin Artist Lofts in Avondale, Dorchester Artists Housing Cooperative and the Pullman Artist Housing – plus several projects that remained a gleam in a developer or an artist’s eye.

In addition to live/work space, I initiated the effort to designate the Cermak Creative Industry District, and tried to have it developed along the lines of Vancouver’s Granville Island – with artist live/work in the mix -  enlisting the support at varying times of the Urban Land Institute, Artspace Projects, the Campaign for Sensible Growth, and the National Endowment of the Arts.  Sadly, that project continues to languish.   I also worked with the Homan Square Foundation in envisioning the Powerhouse, Tower, and other buildings, engaging the Bruner Foundation and participating in an inspiring visit to Manchester Craftsman’s Guild.

In 2000, I married Tim (!), and conducted a study of the space and technical assistance needs of Chicago artists.  Two thousand people responded (via snail mail).  Using the findings from that initial research, I fundraised for and developed tools that would help artists help themselves -- the community-contributed, open-source Chicago Artists Resource website (2005 – present); the monthly Artists at Work Forums (Dancers at Work, Musicians at Work, etc.); the annual Creative Chicago Expo (2002 – 14); the monthly CAR Enewsletter; Square Feet Chicago, a 27-chapter artist’s guide to buying and leasing space adapted from Toronto Artscape, and other one-off programs that convened, connected and educated artists in all disciplines.   Notable among those one-offs are Ars Scientia (conversations between artists and scientists, including Temple Grandin and Apollo Robbins that took place during the Year of Science), and Studio Chicago, a year-long collaboration with the MCA, SAIC, Columbia College, and other groups around artists' space.

Through this I was able to work with amazing colleagues at the City -- in Cultural Affairs and other city departments and sister agencies.  They are too numerous to list, but all were special in many ways.  I was able to mentor “CAR artist-researchers” and interns, many of whom have gone on to remarkable achievements -- Jason Schupbach, Theaster Gates, Meida McNeal, Sara Schnadt, LaShawnda Storm Crowe, Tempestt Hazel, Laura Pearson, Mechelle Moe, Eiren Caffall, Britton Bertran, Tom Burtonwood, Baraka de Soleil, Leigh Fagin, Carmelita Tiu, Esther Kang and many more.   Not to mention my colleagues within City government.   I was part of two national cohorts of leaders in artist markets and support – the Tremaine Foundation and Leveraging Investments in Creativity – participating and hosting annual convenings, making presentations in New Orleans, Winnipeg, Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Houston, and elsewhere.  

In 2010-11, I fundraised for and conducted a second survey of artists’ needs, with 5,000 individuals responding, taking up to 45 minutes to complete a detailed survey.  Sadly, that work fell by the wayside during the change in administrations, but perhaps someone will find it of value sometime in the future.

In the past couple years, I’ve coordinated Chicago Artists Month, using it as a way to connect artists to each other and to local resources, funding, publicity and a platform for innovative projects in the neighborhoods.  CAM has featured a start-up ethnographic film series in Woodlawn, Art + Restaurant + Fashion Walks in Southeast Chicago, listening parties in the barbershop in Lawndale, crafting bees on Devon Avenue, and hundreds of other projects throughout the city.    And this year I was part of the DCASE team to produce the Lake FX Summit + Expo, which introduced our first A+R auditions, evening showcases, Teach-In, Festival of Chicago Film Festivals, Chick Crits and clinics to a robust array of workshops, panels and conversations with local and national arts leaders.

What a ride it has been.   It has been over 20 years that the City recognizes my service, and 23 years that I do.   I like to say I have worked for the City 19 1/2 years longer than I thought I would, and for much of that time I was amazed that I was actually being paid to do work that was so much fun and so rewarding, for a city I love and the artists and organizations who animate it in so many important and valuable ways.   I am always touched when some artist introduces themselves and tells me about how something or other really helped or impacted their life.  It is wonderful to have had the opportunity to make a difference.

Now it is time to retire.  I look forward to doing interesting things in the private sector and thank you all for the support you have given me during this wild, wild ride.   My last day, I believe, will be June 30, 2016.

All the best,

Barbara Koenen


  1. seems like 20 years to read through ALL of your Wonderful Accomplishments! You are the Best is an understatement.

  2. xoxooxxxxx Thank you for all you do did and still do

  3. So many of the opportunities I've benefited from as an artist in Chicago can be traced directly to you. I'm sure there are many other artists who can say the same thing. I'm looking forward to seeing what you do next.