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In Chicago, Science and Industry Also Means Art and Creativity

The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. (Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry)

In 1970, Black Aesthetics, a group of community artists and residents from Hyde Park, located on Chicago’s South Side, approached the Museum of Science and Industry with a request for collaboration. The museum agreed, and hosted its first art exhibition that year. Since then, the event has grown into the Juried Art Exhibition, a long-running gallery of African American art.

For 2019, the Juried Art Exhibition ran from Jan. 14 through Feb. 24. The exhibition featured more than 170 paintings, drawings, photographs, sculpture and mixed-media projects from professional artists and students from Chicago area schools, selected from submissions from more than 400 artists. Cash prizes were awarded for first, second and third place in both the general and youth artist divisions. Students were also awarded scholarships for the School of the Art Institute.

In the general division, Brian Golden won first place for “Promises, promises,” a work done in watercolor, acrylic and marker. Lenin Deisol won second place for “Suitcase,” an oil on linen painting. Bernard Mensah won third place for “Market Street,” done with acrylic on canvas.

In the youth division, Arthur Roby of Kenwood Academy won first place for “Young Thug,” a painting done in oil on canvas. Second place went to Erica Neal of Bolingbrook High School for “The Cycle of Masculinity,” a drawing done in charcoal, pencils and pastel. Third place went to Bria Lackland of Martin Luther King College Prep for a black-and-white photograph titled “Nowhere Square.”

The Juried Art Exhibition has become the centerpiece of Black Creativity, launched during the 1980s to accompany the Exhibition. A festival of sorts, Black Creativity has evolved into an annual umbrella of events centered on African American creativity, ingenuity and innovation hosted by the Museum of Science and Industry.

As one of the premier science museums in the world, the Museum of Science and Industry would not initially seem like a match for an art exhibition. However, for Manny Juarez, Director of Science and Integrated Strategies, Museum of Science and Industry, there isn’t all that much distance between art and science.

“The way we approach that is that we understand that science and industry is also derived from a creative process, and an innovative process. Certainly understanding that art in its various forms requires creativity and innovation,” Juarez says. “What’s exciting for me in many ways is when a student comes in who is interested in science and sees this beautiful artwork and sees this exhibition – they may take that science interest in how they apply to art.”

It works the other way around too, according to Juarez.

“You may have someone who’s interested in the arts and they see that it’s highlighted or featured prominently, professionally in a science museum. And so those connections may inspire them to start to change the way that they think about science, or how they think about innovation and invention,” Juarez says.

Each year, Black Creativity begins on Martin Luther King Day and runs through much of the month of February to coincide with Black History Month. On Martin Luther King Day this year, museum visitors, led by social impact artist Olusola “Shala” Akintunde, participated in the Family Day Art Project to create a collage that celebrated the work of Dr. King along with highlighting women in the Civil Rights movement.

Other components of Black Creativity included the hands-on Innovation Studio, running from Jan. 21 through Feb. 24, the Black Creativity Gala fundraiser held on Jan. 26 and the Career Showcase scheduled for Feb. 23. Junior Science Cafes, held during weekends in February, allowed school groups to reserve 30-minute sessions with artists, scientists or engineers, according to Juarez.

“We invite people to come and talk to school groups, talk a little bit about what they do and why they do it. We give training to the professionals on how to talk to the kids, get them engaged. We usually have a little hands-on activity for the students,” Juarez says.

The Innovation Studio was modeled after the museum’s fabrication laboratory. Visitors were provided commonplace objects such as paper cups, yarn, tape and scissors, along with prompts illustrating challenges such as Life in Space, Better Sleep and Dealing with Cold. They were then invited to create possible solutions utilizing creative thinking, according to Juarez.

“it’s what we call an analog studio, or a low-tech studio where guests can become innovators themselves and solve problems in creative ways in a method that architects and engineers and designers use, like a design process, an iterative method of solving problems,” Juarez says.

The Innovator Gallery, located at the entrance of the Innovation Studio, featured videos and displays of African American artists, engineers and other professionals making a positive impact in and around Chicago. For 2019, the Innovator Gallery included Alissa Constable, founder of Emerge/Next; Fabian Elliott, CEO of Black Tech Mecca; Keisha Howard, founder of Sugar Gamers; Wilbur C. Millhouse III, Chairman and CEO of Millhouse Engineering and Construction; Erik “Niko” Nance, founder and owner of Litehouse Whole Food Grill; social impact artist Shala and Dr. Eric Whitaker, a physician affiliated with the Chicago Area Health and Medical Careers Program, who also served as co-chair of the Black Creativity Gala.

“We celebrate innovation and creativity of African American scientists, artists, designers and inventors. And so much of the program that we do is under that idea of how can we inspire you to study science and technology, engineering, medicine? That really falls into our desire to inspire the genius in everyone. So that’s how we structure it,” says Juarez.

The Career Showcase marks the culmination of Black Creativity. This half-day event features hands-on activities along with the opportunity for visitors to interact one-on-one with artists, scientists, architects and other African-American professionals. Participants of the Career Showcase are often participants in the Junior Science Cafes. Museum donors also participate, often supplying booths for the Showcase. Many people participate year after year. The various stations, located throughout the museum, are especially designed to interest young visitors. However, the museum aims to attract adults as well, according to Juarez.

“Youth is our main focus. Our actual vision – the wording of our vision is ‘to inspire and motivate our children to achieve their full potential.’ So, that being said, our younger audience is a very, very critical component to how we approach our work. Now that doesn’t make us a children’s museum. Our mission is also to inspire the inventive genius in everyone,” Juarez says.

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

Audrey F. Henderson is a Chicagoland-based freelance writer and researcher specializing in sustainable development in the built environment, culture and arts related to social policy, socially responsible travel, and personal finance. Her work has been featured in Transitions Abroad webzine and Chicago Architect magazine, along with numerous consumer, professional and trade publications worldwide.

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