AREA founder Daniel Tucker
AREA founder Daniel Tucker Credit: emily forman

Never mind the wonky theme (“Infrastructure and Institutions”), the puny 5,000-copy print run, or the fact that nearly all the content can already be seen online—you can expect the October 1 release of AREA Chicago‘s tenth issue to be greeted with a gusto seldom lavished on ink-and-paper publications anymore. The dozens of Chicagoans who helped write and produce it, the dozens more who will distribute it at 50 points around the city, the hundreds who gave a few bucks each to finance it, and the thousands of members of groups whose work is chronicled on its pages will see to that.

AREA—the acronym stands for Art, Research, Education, and Activism—is a sometimes bewildering biannual that dedicates each issue’s hodgepodge of essays, advocacy reporting, interviews, and art (often in the form of maps or photo essays) to a different subject. It’s written entirely by volunteers who run the gamut from academics to sex workers and always includes a fair number of publishing virgins. In the five years since it was started by editor Daniel Tucker, AREA—including its website and related projects and events—has become a nexus for all things arty, green, active, and progressive, a touchstone for and celebration of the city’s scattered, diverse social justice community.

But there are two things that make the new issue unique. It’s the only one being produced this year, and—not coincidentally—it’ll be Tucker’s swan song. At the ripe age of 27, AREA‘s driving force says he’s given his best and is “stepping out.” Since he announced his intention in the fall of 2009, the infrastructure and institution AREA has focused on the most have been its own. “There are things to be worked out,” says advisory board member and University of Chicago art history associate professor Rebecca Zorach, “but I think people are stepping up and taking the initiative.”

Tucker has other projects on the horizon, but he also says he’s exiting because he believes AREA will function at a “higher” level “if it’s not reliant on just one person’s energy.” And he won’t be hanging around as an adviser, either. If he’s available, he says, “people will just continue to defer to me,” and the necessary “organizational transformation” won’t take place. “I’ve seen so many organizations that don’t make this shift when they need to, and after ten or 20 years it’s structurally impossible to extract the person from the organization.”

AREA advisory group, summer 2008
AREA advisory group, summer 2008

Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, where his dad was a social worker and his mom a journalist, Tucker found out early that he had a knack for organizing. In high school he put it to use in two arenas: political protest and arts events. But it wasn’t until he came here in 2000, to study at the School of the Art Institute, that he met people who, he says, “helped me understand how to hook up my interest in politics with my interest in culture.” By the spring of 2001 he was working with Emily Forman, Josh MacPhee, and Nato Thompson on the Department of Space and Land Reclamation, a three-day protest consisting of 75 actions designed, according to an archival web page, to “resist the encroachment of top down centralized control and private capital” in Chicago. That sort of thing is common now, Tucker says, but “it was unique at that time and it established a lot of the networks that AREA continues to draw from.” He believes it also got people thinking about public space.

By the time Tucker graduated from the SAIC in 2004, Forman, MacPhee, and Thompson had moved on, and he was looking for a way to maintain the contacts they’d built together. He wanted to “make those connections part of an organizational fabric instead of just being a personal network, all in my head.”

In 2005, he met DePaul University associate professor Jim Duignan, founder of a “pedagogical collective” called the Stockyard Institute, who had about $15,000 with which to start a youth-produced newspaper about education and activism. Duignan says he asked Tucker to launch it—and “once we launched it, it became something very different.”

Tucker started by convening a “diverse group of people”—including Duignan—”who had things in common but didn’t know each other,” and asking them, “If there was a publication that would serve your work, what would it look like?” The answer, he recalls was “not a theory journal.” They wanted something “hopeful,” focused on “what people are doing.”

That group became AREA‘s first advisory board, and the process of announcing a theme and calling for submissions was established. The Stockyard seed money paid for the first three issues. Then, Duignan says, he and Tucker “went our separate ways.” AREA now functions on a $25,000 annual budget, two-thirds of which is raised from individual donations of less than $100. Since late 2006, the question of how to get new blood on the board has been solved by recruiting members from among the authors for each issue.

Tucker says he had an exit strategy from the start. “Initially, I was convinced that I’d commit myself to it for three years and then hand it off to other people who were involved, and if I hadn’t successfully involved enough people then I’d end it. I had a plan, but I didn’t have a good enough sense of what it meant to build an organization from scratch. When three years came around I realized, ‘If I leave now, this thing is just gonna end. It’s gonna fall apart, because I’m too entangled in it.'” At that point, he says, he started stepping back, delegating, working with guest editors, and documenting internal processes.

A year ago Tucker floated the option of folding AREA. But, he says, no one wanted that. Instead, the advisory board went through a process of formalizing the tasks necessary to keep the organization going. The work was divided into six categories—people, content, design, communications, outreach and distribution, finance and fund-raising—and board members were appointed to manage each. They’ll receive stipends currently set at $200 per month.

Tucker has a part-time job as an editor and blog manager for the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts. He also writes the occasional magazine piece and works as a conference organizer and communications consultant for nonprofits. With Amy Franceschini, he wrote a book called Farm Together Now that’ll be published later this year. He has a show coming up in February at Green Lantern Gallery, consisting of 100 campaign signs, each promoting one person’s vision for Chicago. And he’s applying to graduate schools, to get his MFA.

Duignan says he’s now working with the Peace Warriors group at North Lawndale College Prep to launch a publication like the one he originally had in mind. As for AREA, he calls it “very valuable. An important platform for a lot of people.”

AREA‘s plan, post-Tucker, is to keep publishing the print paper twice yearly while redeveloping and expanding the website (a $10,000 grant from the Graham Foundation will jump-start that) and continuing to do residencies and events—discussions, exhibits—in conjunction with each issue. Rachel Wallis, now in charge of finances, echoes other board members I asked about their reasons for keeping the organization going. “The most important thing about AREA is that it belongs to so many people,” she says. “It really belongs to the city of Chicago.”