Community-based arts centers throughout Illinois have not stopped bringing art and art-based activities in one way or another to their neighborhoods since the pandemic hit in March. 

The offerings have evolved to include some in-person events, classes and gallery exhibitions with safety protocols in place. They also fill a need for creative expression during difficult times. 

This was the topic of a One State Arts Conference panel held Sept. 29 called “Support and Amplify – the Role of Community-based Arts Centers in the Age of Pandemic and Social Change,” conceived and moderated by Liz Chilsen, FlexSpace Gallery director at the Riverside Arts Center. 

The annual conference was free this year, held via Zoom and attracted 960 attendees, more than past in-person conferences. 

“I wanted to have a conversation with leaders from community arts centers about what we’re all doing to keep serving our communities during this very challenging time,” Chilsen said. “The arts center is the creative hub of the community, and local arts centers are increasingly important. We are part of the local fabric and civic life.” 

The panel included Betsy Dollar from the Springfield Art Association; Doug Johnson of the McLean County Arts Center, Bloomington; Ciera McKissick of AMFM and the Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago; and Jon Veal of Alt_, Chicago.

Members of the panel discussed how they are currently serving their communities and the opportunities and challenges their organizations are facing during these times.

“The confluence of challenges we are facing right now is difficult, but times like these also are an opportunity to think in new ways and create new solutions,” Chilsen said.

Alt_ has been responding creatively to the way things are since its inception and is “dedicated to revitalizing communities through art and culture,” according to their website. 

During the panel discussion, Veal talked about asking people of the community, such as the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, where Alt_ is based, what they want. 

An example is Project Stamp. Alt_ cofounder Jordan Campbell worked with the community to take photos of people in the neighborhood. Pictures were then put up on abandoned buildings. Instead of seeing the blight, they see hope, Veal said. 

With the pandemic, different needs arose. Alt_ created an exterior market space at an abandoned building in Austin. Using reclaimed wood, solar lights and other supplies, the location was transformed to shelve resources – groceries, toiletries, plants — for the Austin community, which was especially important early in the pandemic when some supplies were scarce. 

Other organization have partnered to help stock the shelves, such as Grocery Run Chicago and Compound Yellow, itself a community-based arts center, located in Oak Park.  

At Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave., Chicago, programming is people-driven, according to McKissisk. Offerings are intergenerational and include, classes, public programs and exhibits.

They have learned that providing virtual classes on a pay-what-you-want basis makes their offerings more accessible to the community. Hyde Park Art Center is also open to the public now, following protocols, and exhibiting Artist Run Chicago 2.0, featuring works from 50 area art centers, including three from Oak Park and one from Austin. 

“One clear message is that art is a human necessity and that locally based arts centers are one of the most direct and powerful ways that people in a community can access opportunities to be creative, do creative things and engage with creative ideas,” Chilsen said. “These are essential activities.”

Chilsen went on to say having access to art and art-based activities can do more. 

“Creativity is inherently optimistic, and creative expression can help with things like depression, fear, confusion, anxiety, PTSD.”

The Riverside Arts Center, 32 E. Quincy Street, Riverside, has continued to serve its neighbors, too.

“These times call on us to be nimble and resourceful,” Chilsen said. “The Riverside Arts Center has long and deep connections in our community and we are committed to keep supporting this community that has supported us so much through the years.

“For me, coming up with ways we can keep providing inspiration at the arts center is key. Being involved in creative activities both gives us a break from the anxiety and also puts us in touch with the part of ourselves that solves problems and finds light.”

The Freeak and FlexSpace galleries are showing the art of Jerry Bleem through Oct. 17.

“Humor Us,” which opens Oct. 25, brings together “artists who make work that’s funny as well as smart,” according to Chilsen. The FlexSpace Gallery will feature new work by Chicago artist Kelly Kristin-Jones that honors Illinois women who worked to ensure passage of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote. 

“Her work also engages humor,” Chilsen said.

Two visitors at a time are allowed to view the exhibits by appointment (email Masks and social distancing are required. Galleries are open Thursdays through Saturdays, 1 to 5 p.m. All exhibitions are free. 

Other art experiences offered by the Riverside Arts Center include a Radial Symmetry paper-folding art workshop on Oct. 13, ceramic jewelry workshop with supply kit on Oct. 16. Ceramic-making Boredom Buster Boxes and Painting Parties in a Box for five or 10 are options for pick up or delivery to Riverside, North Riverside, Brookfield, Berwyn, Oak Park and Austin.

For more, visit or call 708-442-6400.