Accidental Critic: In Praise of Cultural Centers


The little girl must have been 5 years old. Long hair swinging in a ponytail down her back, she wore a pale pink leotard as her father carried her off the dance floor, hugging her tightly. She looked thisclose to tears.

Ten minutes later, she stood her own ground in front of her father as a group of teen-aged dancers in tutus filed past her, exiting the dance floor themselves after performing “The Dance of the Reed Flutes” from The Nutcracker. She gazed up at them in awe, seemingly wanting to reach out and touch them before one noticed her and blessed her with a broad smile. Five minutes later, she was back on the dance floor herself, holding hands with a friend and practicing her own ballet steps as an orchestra played other selections from The Nutcracker.

Her dad, standing next to me, told me she had been afraid to dance in this room full of other children, most of them strangers, when they first arrived at the Chicago Cultural Center for the city-sponsored Dance-Along Nutcracker. But the discovery of her friend, perhaps combined with the kindness of one not-so-much-older student dancer, left her beaming and ready to join in the fun. Here’s what that fun looked like:

I stumbled onto this scene simply because I was in the area and decided to see what might be happening at the cultural center before heading home after a full (but not too full for a little bit more) day.

The Chicago Cultural Center is a city-owned venue that serves as home to a wide variety of temporary exhibits and artistic performances, all offered free of charge to anyone who walks in. The building itself is an architectural gem. Opened in 1897 as home to the Chicago Public Library, it’s a Beaux Arts masterpiece that boasts two gorgeous stained-glass domes, including the world’s largest Tiffany dome. It outgrew its use as a library decades ago and and now plays host to an ever-changing line-up of programs ranging from art and architectural exhibitions to live performances of classical music, jazz, theater and more—including, at least this past weekend, an anyone-can-dance ballet performance.

I take a detour from my planned itinerary anytime I’m walking past the Cultural Center and can spare the time because it has never failed to reward me. I’ve seen walk-in models of ground-breaking sustainable housing designs (including the example shown at right), art exhibits that made my jaw drop, Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry on the walls, and an exhibition displaying all 32 of the enormous doors that were painted by Eugene Eda to decorate and help define the original Malcolm X College in Chicago.

Poetry editor Kathleen Kirk once saw a combination of sound sculpture and art installation there, and wrote about it for us.

These programs are an amazing and invaluable resource for Chicago residents and visitors, fully in keeping with the facility’s role as cultural center. And in that role, the Chicago Cultural Center is just one of countless venues in countless communities that bring art to audiences who might not otherwise see it. My public library is another, and there’s a good chance yours is as well. Mine has a small collection of paintings and sculpture on permanent display, a gallery room offering ever-changing temporary exhibits by local artists, a theater/lecture hall, and programming that includes artist receptions, poetry readings, book discussions, and meet-the-author nights.

In the town next door to mine, the park district operates a cultural center that contains a small black-box theatre space where I’ve seen some really fine works, including one that later was picked up by Chicago’s renowned Goodman Theatre. These are works that often tell the stories of cultural and racial minorities, stories that might struggle to find a home elsewhere, but here they are performed with professionalism and priced affordably. The theater’s stated mission includes fostering debate, conversation and compassion throughout the local community.

Some of the 32 doors created by artist Eugene “Eda” Wade for Malcolm X College, displayed at the Chicago Cultural Center earlier this year.

All over the country, we have community cultural centers like these, dedicated to connecting artists with patrons who otherwise might not see their work—or perhaps in some cases any art at all. These centers, and their staff—both paid and volunteer—help develop a love for the arts in audiences of every age, race and gender identity. They nurture children’s dreams and imaginations, and develop both future and current artists and patrons.

During this season of thankfulness and kindness and generosity, I’m grateful for these organizations, their staff and volunteers, and the work they do year-round. Amidst the rush of the holiday season, I’m planning to carve out some resources—time, money or both—to help support them.

What does your cultural center look like?

Chicago Cultural Center

When Poetry Editor Kathleen Kirk visited the Cultural Center

Kim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at kkish.net.