Blago Shoeshine Kit
Blago Shoeshine Kit Credit: Courtesy of Ray Noland

The last time I wrote about Pilsen’s Chicago Arts District, in August, it was to chronicle the departure of yet another gallery and note the many empty storefronts along the district’s main drag, roughly 1700-2000 S. Halsted. “Everybody’s leaving,” Robin Monique Rios lamented, as she prepared to move her business, 4Art Inc., to the Zhou B Art Center in Bridgeport, where a livelier vibe has been attracting artists and gallerists alike.

Rios says the move has worked out well, and there are still a lot of gaping windows on Halsted. But next month two Bridgeport art-world entrepreneurs will buck the trend, trekking across the river to Pilsen to open a new venture at 2229 S. Halsted, a couple blocks south of the ghost town Rios was fleeing. Lauren Pacheco, 31, and her brother, artist Peter Kepha, 28—half the team behind the popular, short-lived 32nd & Urban Gallery—will launch the Chicago Urban Art Society on June 11 with “Sweet Tea and American Values,” a solo show of work by stencilmaster Ray Noland, aka CRO.

During its two-and-a-half-year run, 32nd & Urban hosted 17 shows for 70 artists, including the likes of Juan Angel Chavez and Michael Genovese. But when their partners departed to pursue business and law degrees, Pacheco and Kepha decided to take a breather and rethink the situation. They closed the gallery in 2008 and, Pacheco says, “mourned” it for the next year as they watched the economy worsen and opportunities for artists shrivel. Finally, Pacheco recalls, “We said we’ve got to get back to what we want to be doing.” In July she left her job as regional director of Rocket Learning, a tutoring company, to lay the groundwork for a “reinvented” gallery.

Unlike 32nd & Urban, CUAS is a nonprofit that’s intended to function like a community art center, not only presenting exhibits but offering classes and a venue for meetings and events. For that they needed some serious space. Pacheco started looking in Bridgeport, where Kepha—the name, his professional handle, means “rock” in Aramaic and alludes to Saint Peter—has a graphic design business called Detour Studio. “We really wanted to stay there,” he says. But they couldn’t afford anything big enough.

Lauren Pacheco with Ald. Daniel Solis, the United Neighborhood Organization’s Philip Mullins, and Juan Rangel, CEO of UNOCredit: Courtesy of Ray Noland

Pacheco and Kepha are third-generation Mexican-American Chicagoans and plugged in to a couple of the city’s vital networks. Their older sister, Kristal Pacheco, a muralist and member of the Chicago Public Art Group, was their original conduit to established artists like Chavez, Kerry James Marshall, and Hector Duarte. And Peter Pacheco Jr., their late father, was a precinct captain in Brighton Park on the southwest side, where Lauren and Kepha grew up and still live. (A stretch of California Avenue is named for him.) Lauren Pacheco says they’ve known Alderman Daniel Solis, whose 25th Ward includes Pilsen, for a long time. When Solis heard they were looking for space, he suggested the former home of the Sandler Sanitary Wiping Cloth Company in Pilsen.

“I know Lauren and her brother personally,” Solis said in a phone interview last week. Bringing them in is “a great opportunity for the neighborhood.” Solis is also “looking at artists as an option” for the area east of the Sandler property, on Cermak, where three multistory structures stand nearly empty. “We haven’t had a lot of success attracting industry there,” he says. “The kind of industry that used to be attracted to these buildings, it’s not in the city anymore.”

The area had been designated a “prime manufacturing district” by the city, he notes, “but we’re making it more flexible. . . . Film industry, design, whatever—people might not be able to live there, but they’d be able to work.”

The 68,000-square-foot, three-story, brick-and-timber Sandler building, which dates back to the 1890s, was purchased a year ago for $2.6 million by Sterling Bay Companies, a Chicago-based developer. They’re turning it into studio, office, and retail space. Larry Goldwasser, a vice president at NAI Hiffman, which is handling the leases, says they’d like to rent to artists and other creative businesses and can offer units as small as 1,500 square feet. CUAS will occupy 4,200 square feet—four times the size of 32nd & Urban—on the main floor. Besides an expansive, pillared exhibit area, they’ll have a classroom, a meeting room, and a studio that they plan to turn over to a different artist-in-residence each quarter.

As the first tenant—and a source of marketable cachet—CUAS got an advantageous deal, Pacheco says. But making rent will still require constant grant prospecting and fund-raising, she adds, and until they’re fully established she’ll have to balance her role as executive director with a day job. Employing a “very wide range of price points,” the gallery, programmed and curated by Kepha, will be the “key revenue driver.”

Shows will run six to eight weeks, and CUAS will take a 35 percent commission on sales. They’re also selling $20 annual memberships and soliciting proposals from artists who’d like to teach classes in the space. After “Sweet Tea and American Values” come shows by photographer Doug Fogelson (opening in August) and the Post Family (October), as well as a one-day “urban contemporary wares” flea market.

Noland, who graduated from the School of the Art Institute in 1995 and got his start doing rave flyers, saw his reputation skyrocket with his Internet, poster, and curatorial campaign work in support of Barack Obama. Now he says he’s doing fewer mass-produced prints and more one-of-a-kind stencil work, focused mostly on the problems of this “self-segregated country” where “Obama got elected by sidestepping the race issue.” At CUAS, he’ll show about 25 new pieces, including a suite of Rod Blagojevich-focused work (Blago Shoeshine Kit, Graffiti Blago, Elvis Blago) and The Oath Keepers, inspired by a talk by Cornel West that “connects the dots” of home-grown terrorism. He’ll also sell posters and a new 45-by-60-inch canvas called Daley Riots—an image of Mayor Daley in riot gear, flanked by “those brand new Chevy Tahoe SUVs that Jody Weis got him to buy.” Prices start at $20 for an offset poster.