Laura Shaeffer

Setting Up SHoP: Find Things That Aren't Happening and Make Them Happen

SHoP (Southside Hub of Production) is a collective of artists, writers, filmmakers, craftspeople, educators, and local civic organizations who have come together to create a local cultural hub space in Hyde Park, Chicago. SHoP’s main aim is to stimulate local creative activity and to foster artistic and cultural enrichment of all kinds in the neighborhood.It's located in Fenn House, an 1890s mansion at 5638 S. Woodlawn Ave, and opened in October 2011. CAR Visual Art Researcher Lindsay Obermeyer spoke with one of the founding members, artist Laura Shaeffer, about her previous projects, how SHoP came to be, and how people can get involved.

Can you tell me about Op Shop, your project before SHoP?

The Op Shop [or Opportunity Shop] was an idea to make use of unused space to create a series of "happenings" in hopes that they might surprise and engage our Hyde Park neighborhood. It started in response to a series of perceived needs—for a public space to meet, to share ideas, and to inspire each other; for a space independent of the major local institutions, run by, supported by, and fueled by the community; for a  space for informal teaching and learning outside of the university or school system. We are surrounded by vacant space, languishing in a market that puts rent out of reach for people who could use it and would be good tenants and citizens. The hope was to use these spaces, take care of them, inhabit them, and make connections with each other that last beyond temporary involvement, and that try to treat real estate as a community asset rather than an investment opportunity.  

Op Shop was nomadic in nature, which gives us a chance to move to your corner and to get to know the neighborhood street by street. We all tend to get localized, when one block south, east, west, or north of here, you will find a sometimes dramatically different feel and demographic. People follow us and some just get to know us while we are on their block. We change a place slightly and the place changes us, like a circus when it comes to town. When the circus leaves, that area seems both more empty than before they came and more energized with the life of possibilities left behind. Each Op Shop informs and alters those who participate in it as well—we all shift and develop with each iteration.

How did you come to develop it?

The idea came after about three years of running a project space with my husband in our home, fittingly called Home Gallery. I had the idea that some artists should be shown and they weren't, so I approached my husband with a crazy idea of opening up our whole home four to six times a year to give artists a show we wanted to see. It was very selfish and also, frankly, we don't get out much. Here on the south side, you have to do what you have to do. Andrew indulged my ideas and we invited our first Home Gallery artist Casey Roberts; he agreed and came up to Chicago from Indianapolis one day with his humongous, gorgeous cyanotypes to our home, hung them, had a beer with us at the opening, and then left them there for a month! We felt like we had won the lottery. Home Gallery is a whole other story, an interesting experiment in itself. After about three years, we had met many of our neighbors, developed a rich and inspiring circle of friends, and acquired a good many new works of art; we were well-known in the neighborhood, totally exhausted, and broke. That is when I started thinking about the need for a public space, one that we could leave behind at night with everyone else.

How did this experience lead to creating SHoP? 

The temporary, nomadic nature of the Op Shop allowed us to experiment and learn as we developed a community, but a month or two goes by quickly and the thought of allowing time back into the project was very appealing. The rootedness of Home Gallery was lost to the uprootedness of Op and there seemed to be a very strong new need—the extended but still temporary SHoP. As we organized each new version of our project, our sense of cohesion as a group of collaborators grew and we felt ready to take on a longer-term project. John Preus, Gabriel Piemonte, and I had been discussing a project for the Del Prado building, when we were approached by a member of the Unitarian Church, the owners of the Fenn House, and asked to make a proposal for the use of the building. After about a year of negotiations, meetings, and presentations, we arrived at a one-year lease for the Fenn House, which allowed us to expand on the ideas started in the Op Shop, in an environment that is inclusive and family-friendly, where our own kids will have a place as well. 

How does SHoP work?

We envision it as a mostly unprogrammed drop-in space. In many ways, this vision is a response to dissatisfaction with how life gets cut up into one- or two-hour programmed segments, with relatively little time for just being in a place, with not much to do, and browsing, socializing, being with people in the community. This is even more pronounced with children. Where can kids go after school if they aren't in an after-school program, or on a sports team, or in a club of some kind or another? The creative mind requires boredom, spans of idleness to allow it to work and think and become an entity unto itself. We hope that SHoP can provide some of these moments by offering space for folks of all ages to drop in and find something to do. 

We are considering a variety of funding schemes to make the facilities available. Ideally, we could make it all free with a few checks from some generous funders, but as it is, we are working with a kind of membership model in which you can pay monthly dues to gain access to any or all of the resources. 

How can folks become involved in it?

By showing up with some energy and creativity. You can get involved by offering to teach, to give lessons, to work on the building, to give or participate in workshops, to rent space in the building. You can fix something in the woodshop with help from a trained technician; you can come to an event and drop your kids off in the fort-building room, or sign up to lead fort-building or woodworking with the kids; you can stop by the bookstore/library; you can read, study, and have tea; you can come to the exhibitions, conversations, music events, salons, and have a homebrew or a lemonade; you can learn about community radio with Gabriel Piemonte, check out the film series by Michael W. Phillips Jr., take a movement class with Michael Eastwood; you can get involved with the Hyde Park Kunstverein, the Berlin-style community museum; you can propose a project or exhibition to the curating committee that is inspired by the house. We're pretty open to ideas and energy. The best thing to do is to come to an event and get a sense of the place and what’s happening in the house. Don't expect a smoothly functioning institutional atmosphere; this is a small group of folks making something happen on a shoestring budget, while working and raising children. Everything here is deeply enmeshed in and informed by the multifaceted challenges of family life in a major city, in a tumultuous economic and political moment in history.  

What are some of the lessons you have learned along the way?

That things can happen if a few invested individuals get involved.  Enthusiasm and goodwill are contagious. Collaboration is difficult, intense, and rewarding. None of us is totally selfish, or totally altruistic. Investing in the aspects of a project that you feel a strong sense of ownership over, or have strong opinions about, is crucial.  Communication is important, but it is also possible to talk too much. Best to find the person who cares about the task and let them do their best at it rather than micromanaging everything. Let people take ownership of the parts they work on. This has a particular dynamic among artists because authorship is so important for one’s career, when that is a factor (and it usually is at some level, whether or not it is acknowledged). And it is never easy to be sure of why you are doing something. There is usually a stated objective, which may or may not align with a set of more or less oblique longings, and part of any relationship is dealing with these as they emerge, on both personal and communal levels. These are the challenging interdependencies upon which a community, a human ecology is built.

If someone wanted to create a similar program, what advice would you give them?

Do it because you want to, and because it is needed. Find things that aren't happening and make them happen. And don't be afraid to claim them, and push them in the direction that you want them to go. SHoP is built on a set of personal interests and ideas about the health of a community. Other similar projects would necessarily be different by virtue of the skills and interests of those involved. Pay attention to your environment: What are its assets, what are its needs? Are there gaps that you can fill with your skills and resources? Are there buildings that are sitting empty, public resources that could be better used, or reach a broader audience? Are there things to do, places to go that make the plce feel like a community, like a livable and inspiring environment?  Talk to your alderman, go to local meetings, and learn about what's going on and what is missing. Can you help make it better?

Where do you see SHoP in five years?

Well, the lease is only for a year, so presumably the building will again be put on the market. Of course, our hope is that the church will love the project and will want it to stick around for at least five years, and maybe funding strategies will emerge through our collaboration that make it sustainable for a longer period of time.  But one of the central aspects of this project is to avoid the trap of self-preservation for its own sake that most institutions eventually fall into. Some things aren't meant to live forever. Some things are more beautiful and inspiring because they’re ephemeral. There's a kind of energy available for temporary investments that is different from sustained, long-term investment. It's a valuable difference and inspires very different outcomes. Maybe all of our time and energy, and attention to the building will result in the church being able to sell it. Our success will either convince the church to support us and help sustain the project in other ways, or it will serve to inspire someone with the resources to buy the building. At that point, the church will have a choice as to whether this is part of a mission that they want to sign onto, or a way to enhance the value of their property. An investor could also underwrite the project, a significant donation to the Resource Center could help keep it afloat longer, or some unforeseen answer could come along. We are prepared for anything at this point. Maybe a year is all we have, and we should make the best of it...

...BUT, if by some favorable winds, we are still operable in five years, we hope it is a thriving, local, community-centered resource, accessible to people of all income levels and education levels. We do not want to be another art center. We want to be ad-hoc in the best sense of the phrase, maintaining that things are done because somebody just really wanted to do it.

Laura Shaeffer is an artist, mother, wife, and teacher, interested in social activism, community organisation, and alternative pedagogy. Founder of the Op Shop, a temporary nomadic cultural center in Hyde Park, and co-director of Home Gallery, a series of contemporary art exhibits in a domestic setting. In addition to serving as artistic director of SHoP and a member of the curatorial committee, Laura will work as the co-director of exhibitions and events for the HPK, Community Museum at SHoP. Laura will also facilitate and teach many workshops and classes throughout the year with kids and adults.

Interviewed in Fall 2011. 

Published by CAR_Laura on Thu, 12/01/2011 - 8:03am
Updated on Tue, 02/23/2016 - 2:01pm