This fall the Hyde Park Art Center celebrates its 75th birthday. That’s an advanced age for an arts organization, but HPAC’s administrators and curators hope it’s still in the middle of its life. Its latest exhibit, “The Chicago Effect: Redefining the Middle,” considers the idea of middleness in terms of age, geography—Chicago is, after all, in the middle of the country—and in other, more metaphorical ways. It’s also a tribute to the way the arts are practiced here, particularly at places like HPAC, which is neither the largest and richest art center and gallery in the city nor the smallest and poorest but—you guessed it—in the middle.
“The idea of partnership is key,” says Megha Ralapati, who cocurated the exhibit with Christopher Ho and Allison Peters Quinn. “It’s not specific to Chicago, but it’s a mode of working and practicing, of sharing resources and tools that characterizes the way artists work in Chicago.”
For “The Chicago Effect,” HPAC has partnered with other institutions, including the School of the Art Institute, the Rhode Island School of Design, Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Green Lantern Gallery, DePaul University, and HPAC’s neighbor, the University of Chicago, to construct the exhibit, create the catalog, and conduct a series of experiments, artistic, social, and institutional.
“We’ve always been an experimental place for ideas,” says Quinn. “We want to put our money where our mouth is. The experiments will help visitors ‘read’ the artwork.”
The belief that art is a process, an ongoing experiment, goes along with the theme of middleness. “You occupy a space of uncertainty,” Ralapati explains, “in the hope of going to another place.”
Several pieces in the exhibit play with this idea. Robert Burnier, a talented artist, reached a turning point in his career a few years ago and decided to transition from painting to sculpture. He put his paintings in the crates he’d used to ship them to galleries and carved the crates into different shapes. Then he painted everything black. In order to create new art, he had to destroy the old. “He took a risk to change,” Ralapati says. “It requires courage not to be focused on reception.”
Other pieces consider different facets of middleness. Lan Tuazon’s sculpture and paintings reconfigure the parking lots in Manhattan—spaces that occupy a limbo between public and private—into separate islands. Marissa Lee Benedict’s contribution consists of a boat and a seismometer (a tool for tracking shifts in tectonic plates) that she built herself; her art is about process and immersion and observation, another way of being in the middle.
HPAC, as an organization, is also a work in progress. It recently began brainstorming with IDEO, a global design firm, about ways to reconfigure its space and redesign its educational programs. “The idea was to look at things from a different perspective,” Quinn says, “and use the resources we have to make it new.”
Embracing the state of middleness, in other words, is HPAC’s way of staying relevant and ensuring that it’s still very far from the end.