Elastic Arts Foundation
2830 N. Milwaukee Ave., 2nd floor
Interview by Kate Pollasch with Samuel Lewis: Co-Founder/Director; programming, marketing, production, outreach; curator of Hip-Hop Series.
KP: Elastic Arts has a group of five co-founders and I am wondering if you can tell me about how you came together and formed this foundation?
SL: Well, right now our board consist of five people and all of them except for one are the founders. So four founders on the board and then the three directors are also founders. One of our other founders is the director of Elastic Cambodia, but that is a different organization.
KP: How did you all come together and form Elastic?
SL: I went to Columbia but was living up north, and there was a guy in Evanston who would open his home up to play music and party, and we all got together and gave this big talk of this idea that we had for a collective of artists and um it kind of started from there.
KP: So you started right out of undergraduate school?
SL: Yes, we started hanging together as a group we would do big weekend long jam sessions out of my apartment, and after that we realized that we want to more formalize this. So, we rented a space in Pilsen, and we were there for a number of years, and then we moved to a space in Humboldt Park, and we were there for a number of years, and now were in Logan Square, and we have been there since 2005.
KP: So when did you become a not for profit organization?
SL: Ya, that was around 2002, we became a not for profit and 2004 when we got our 501c3 status, but before than we were for profit, which was a big mistake because we realized we were not really a for profit. We had no business plan per-say, so we were kind of floundering around and then we realized that really we were more in line with a not for profit.
KP: Was that process of getting a 501c3 a difficult one?
SL: Well, I was not one of the people doing the paperwork, but relatively speaking it was an easy process for us to do. We got our 501c3 in 2004, but it really wasn’t until 2009 when we really started to solidify, in a really real way, what our mission was. That was facilitated by going to some sessions at the Arts and Business Council, so that was really helpful for us to get together after several years and kind of really talk amongst the people that were founders to find out what exactly our goals were because people kind of had different ideas of what we were going to be and what we were about and we were able to get on the same page. But, I think that Arts and Business Council kind of helped hone that message in and we formalized our mission statement there, and a business statement, and a five year plan and all that.
KP: So I know that you just did renovations at Elastic, was that part of your plan about the future of Elastic when you were talking in 2009?
SL: That specific renovation was not. The renovation, the idea for it was something that had been around for a while because certain people in our group wanted that for a while but we tabled it for a while because at the time, the way we were thinking about it, it didn’t work out for us. We were kind of thinking about it in the wrong way and then the conversation got brought up again once Lila (Catellier) came on board.
KP: Was it centered on creating more space for the performing arts or the visual arts exhibition space?
SL: Both, it benefits both. It creates oppositional display walls where it was all in one area before [referring to the exhibition space]. So it really helps both.
KP: So I want to go back to the history for a little bit. You all started in Pilsen and then moved to other communities, and I know your organization’s website talks about serving the Logan Square community and I am wondering if you can talk a little about that aspect. Has serving the different communities always been a part of your mission or is this something that has developed with the location in Logan Square?
SL: You know when we were in Pilsen we weren’t involved in the community at all and I think it was kind of a function of where we were as people and as an organization at that time because we were like in college still and not really thinking about to many people outside of us and our friends. But, then once we moved to the second space, which was technically Humboldt Park, but still in the ward where were are today, we reached out to the Alderwoman at the time for help because we were having issue with one of our neighbors who wanted us out because we were in a space that was not zoned for what we wanted to do. We were smack dab in the middle of a residential area. One of our neighbors had a big problem with us being there and tried to get us out and was working political means. So, we decided to start working with the politics and reached out to the alderwoman for help and she was up for an election against the current alderman today, and this is several years ago, and so we reached out to him as well and it was like a night and day thing. She was more machine style politics, and didn’t really care about the arts. Where as Rey Colon, the current alderman, his daughters were in the arts, he has always had a love of the arts and that has been a big passion in his life- so it was much easier to talk to him. He was not part of that machine and was closer to our age, so when he got elected, which we kind of helped in any way we could, he found us the space that we are currently in. So through the relationship with him and actually he and the person heading the Logan Square Chamber of Commerce, Paul (Levin), they both had a hand in helping us find the space. And so, through those relationships we got more involved in the community. We helped found the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival, we have worked with many organizations, giving our time up and our space up for many organizations and groups. As we have gotten older and become more mature and being just more conscious has led us to being more so that way in our company.
KP: Do you see EAF staying in Logan Square?
SL: You know I never say never, but you know right now we usually stay in a space for like 5 years and then move for one reason or another, by our own choice or getting forced out. And now that we have redesigned this space there may be another 5 years before we decide to leave. But, I really can’t think of a better neighborhood that is more suited for us and where we are right now. The only thing that would change that is if we had the opportunity to buy a building and if it wasn’t in Logan Square than we would go where we have the opportunity to buy a building. Beyond that I don’t really see us leaving. And technically we are not in Logan Square, we are technically in Avondale, which is a neighborhood that has always been kind of rolled into Logan Square, but lately there has been an effort to brand Avondale as its own neighborhood and highlighting the contrast that it has with Logan Square and all that stuff because certain people see Logan Square as more of a gentrified neighborhood so its more about we are not Logan Square we are Avondale because Avondale is not gentrified at this point. And that’s a big part of us also, like we were in Pilsen way before it was cool and we were in Humboldt Park way before Humboldt Park was cool and we have been in Logan Square way before Logan Square was cool. There is nothing wrong with having more shops, and you know especially if they are local and more mom and pop type stores, we definitely want that and it seams like for the most part the Alderman has been conscious of that in Logan Square and not trying to sell out as it were, but you know it gets harder and harder. People can sell their buildings to whomever they want you know, so its tough but I think he has done a good job like by putting in places like Revolution Brewing, which is a local business you know instead of a big national brewery or even a big local brewery. And I think the local business that have opened up, even just along the main strip, you know around California and Fullerton, which is like the epicenter of everything, I think he’s been conscious.
KP: I know a few years ago there was a building they were redoing along that central area that was going to have music and arts facilities, has that been a part of your organization’s programing or community engagement?
SL: Ya, we were actually instrumental in that developing. And its up and open and it’s the Hairpin Arts Center and we have presented a bunch of shows there and we were actually slated to be in residence there and there was talk of us moving our entire operation over there at one point, but as things have played out, which there have been a lot of politics that I wont bore you with, but we just realized that that space is good and a great resource that we are going to use, but the way its stands today doesn’t really fit in with the type of shows that we do. Even how it’s outfitted, because there still needs to be like a lot of sound dampening and more suitable for music and also having people living above the space. And there are limitations on how long you can go, like everything has to be shut down by one and that doesn’t work when most of our shows really kick off at 11 at night and that gives you two hours which is really not conducive. But it’s a great venue for events, art shows, plays, things that have music in them but aren’t really concerts.
KP: I’m wondering if you can talk to me about the relationship between the visual and the performing arts at EAF? Do you see those as two different entities or are they connected?
SL: Well they are connected, you know, sometimes literally, but we definitely want the art to complement the performance. Trying to put art in there that is going to appeal to some part of our demographic, we do a lot of different events, jazz events and hip hop events, so the crowds vary, um so we like exhibits to at least appeal to one of those crowds and there had been a lot of cases where we have had people display who are also performance artists and then they incorporated some live performance in with their opening. Um the current exhibit that we have up, photos by Jim Newberry, are all photos of local jazz musicians so that is really a one-to-one relationship between what’s being displayed and the music, because a lot of those faces on the wall are people that have performed. And we like stuff like that. But, I think now that we have a curator, which is new, she has a link into that community and we hope it is going to become more of a gallery on its own and we are going to have gallery hours again and we haven’t had gallery hours in five years. So we are hopefully going to be listing in the visual arts section of the reader and things like that, and just getting on the gallery map and have people recognize that this is a gallery as well instead of a venue that has art up on the wall. So that is a transition that we are in right now.
KP: Is the visual arts going to have a similar mission to the performing arts, in that you are going to foster emerging artists, young artists?
SL: I think any where across the board. But, the fact that we are not in a known gallery district and we are primarily known as a performing space naturally is going to lend us to emerging artists as opposed to artists who are willing to show in the west loop or something like that. I just think people have to understand that we have a true commitment to being a gallery and having a curator is a really good first step. Knowing that the artist will have hours where their work can be shown outside of during a performance, I think that is going to help. Having them be able to talk to a person who knows the process of putting up an exhibit intimately is going to help us to attract better people.
KP: Does EAF work with artists outside of the city or are you primarily looking to local Chicago performing artists?
SL: Our main focus is Chicago and the artists here, but I think where we don’t actively go out and pursue people outside the city, I think that over time we have gotten a reputation that has spread where people that are touring, our name gets dropped as a place they might want to look into when they come through town. So we get reached out to by a lot of bands that are touring, and then with the jazz scene especially we have brought people from all over the world. We take part in the umbrella music festival, and so that is all about European jazz and Chicago jazz and there is a whole heavy set of people coming into Europe to play that event. So there is always going to be European players at Elastic, so that’s a given. As far as the hip-hop series that I do, we have had people definitely from all over the country playing. We haven’t had as many international, but a lot of that scene is local you know.
KP: I know you have recording space, do a lot of these artists come just to play or is that a big part of your organization?
SL: Ya, its mostly for performance, you know we have recording capabilities but I think where recording was a larger part of what we did in the past its now not a large part. We still use the space as a recording studio but Id say it’s about 5% of what we use the space for. We had wanted to be a space for that but due to the proliferation of home recording studios and the demand is just not there. We have been in this so long that having a recording studio was still a viable business model, but that has changed over the last 10 years and completely flipped on its ear. But it is nice to have that stuff there if the need arises or the demand is there and it’s been a revenue stream that we would like to improve on but we have not.
KP: How do you see Elastic Growing and what is the plan for the future, if there is one at all?
SL: That’s a question that is always hanging out there in our minds. Wanting to someday own our own space, because that is the great differentiator. When it comes down to it, we can be as great of a space as we want to be, but as soon as our landlord says I’m not renewing your lease it’s gone. So, we can have money and go find another space or maybe not. That’s a scary prospect and that’s what happened to places like The Hot House. They were in the flat iron building and then their lease was up and it was not renewed and they reeled from that for years, they were closed for years, like three years or more, and it look them that long and when they re-launched they launched into a bigger space, a better space, and that was great but then they showed the value in that space so much that Buddy Guy was like hmmm we like that space and then they lost that space and now its Buddy Guy’s. So it’s like now they don’t have a space again. They are left to putting on events that they are producing in other people’s spaces. This is like one of the spaces that was a big inspiration to us in starting things out so its turned into a cautionary tale because there is something about ownership that people cant take that away. So if I would say any goal that would be a goal to be able to afford to buy a space and really make it into a foundation that our name suggests. Um, but now that we have redesigned everything I think that our immediate goal is to grown and maximize the space that we have now. There is still a lot of empty time in that space, we are not maxing out that time that we have in that space and we are not maxing out the attendance on the shows that we have in that space. Those are some really tangible and immediate goals.
KP: Well on that note, and based on our e-mails, I take it that you have another job?
SL: Ya, we all have another job. That would definitely be another goal to have that be our only job and that would be wonderful. Its so funny because if someone were to say you can make what your making today, and if I was 23 I would do it, but I’m not 23 so its not enough for me to leave my job, but is a nice supplement to my other job. But you know, I would like to get to the point where we have a full time staff of 5 or so people and were able to put 8 hours a day five days a week, or more, into filling that space up. That’s definitely something we want to do.
KP: Does EAF mostly work on grants?
SL: For the most part, we do have a registry but for the most part its grants. And for years we have been using pitchfork as a fundraiser. That was the first big thing that we had – we get the beer for that and then split the profits with the Hungry Brain. So we have been doing that even before it was called Pitchfork. So that has been a steady stream of 20 plus thousand a year. Then individual donation and miscellaneous random stuff, its been amazing how you think of an idea and all of the sudden all of these major founders want to help you. It just shows that if you just put your nose to something and do it hopefully you will get recognized. We are still ramshackle, but we are getting there you know. But part of that I still like, I like the real grassroots organization and I like that we don’t always play by the rules in the not for profit world because that can get just as stuffy as the corporate world sometimes and be just as snobbish. So, it’s a balancing act because I don’t want to get to a point where we are out of touch with the communities that we are serving or presenting ourselves in a way that is going to make them uncomfortable. We cant loose our street cred. as it were. And I’m glad there are, but there is always a young organization coming up trying to do that and I think that there is space for all of them, but there is a limit. I don’t want to get pushed out.
KP: Do you see the music scene changing here recently?
I feel like unfortunately its not changing enough in my opinion. I am a huge fan of hip- hop and jazz, I really am, I don’t want to see them go away, but they have run their course. And I am waiting for what’s that next thing that is going to come up. It seems like there are so many contenders and something comes up and it’s more of a subgenera rather than something you can really hold on to. Like drum and base, techno, dub-step, all these things step up and they have a following but its not like they are going to have people come to a show and sit down and watch it as artistic expression instead of just a party or something that is more transitory or esoteric. That’s the challenge to me is when the next great art form is going to come out, and we have been around for well over a decade and we still have a jazz series and a hip-hop series and these are series that are staying around, some are our original series and they haven’t gone anywhere. I would love for it to be that the hip-hop series is not relevant any more and there is some other series that I would rather do instead, but there isn’t. Although the spoken word scene, I feel like there is a lot of excitement in the literary, and not just slam poetry, but writers that are getting up and speaking their work as well as slam poets and people that are singers. We do a literary scene now called Real Talk and I think to me that is the most exciting new series that has come along. We use to do a literary series called Discrete, which was a reading series for hard core literary people who would just read their stuff. Where as Real Talk there is a lot of hard-core writing but a lot of them are poets and they write poetry and they don’t need all the conventions of slam. I think that is probably one of the more exciting things because they will have a rapper perform their thing and they encourage you to be more than just spoken stuff so its more like a variety show in that sense. But its tough and I’m ready for what’s next. I wanted to do a series called Next where it was like people come with any idea and they just come with whatever their stuff is but its so hard to do something and have people catch on because they want something new but it has to be established enough to come see it. So, I’m waiting. Its going to come soon, hopefully in the next five years.
KP: Thank you so much for talking with me and I look forward to seeing what’s next at Elastic.