Thriving creative communities can be found throughout the Rust Belt in other small- to mid-size industrial cities like Racine.  Places like Sheboygan, Rockford, Peoria, Flint, South Bend, Dayton, Toledo, Canton—the list goes on.

By Vera Scekic 

“Why’d you decide to open this gallery here?”

As soon as we catch sight of a new face peering through our front window, my husband and I start placing bets on who will most accurately predict the number of minutes it takes before our visitor blurts out those eight words.

Sometimes the question is replaced with the backhanded compliment, “I didn’t expect to find a gallery like this.”  My script outlining my hometown’s assets and the warmth and vibrancy of its arts community is routinely met with a half-smile that telegraphs deep skepticism.

I run a contemporary art gallery in a part of flyover country I joke no one even cares to fly over.  My city, Racine, Wisconsin, is located at the midpoint of the industrial corridor that spans the western shore of Lake Michigan from Manitowoc, Wisconsin to Gary, Indiana.

Racine owes its French-derived name and its existence to the turbid, meandering Root River around which its downtown clusters.  During one stage of industrialization, Racine produced the greatest number of patents per capita in the country.  Over the past three decades, the city has been dependably in or just below the top spot on the state’s monthly unemployment rate rankings.

Despite its ostensible commitment to championing artists and ideas that are fresh and progressive, the contemporary art world is remarkably provincial.  A blatant hierarchy exists among arts institutions, art schools, curators, critics, publications and centers of cultural production.  Being based and/or exhibiting in Chicago to our south already drops you several notches below the coastal cities of New York and L.A.  Milwaukee to our north clings tenuously to the bottom rung of the ladder.  Racine, in the opinion of the contemporary art world pantheon, does not exist.

Confronted with this harsh reality, why do creatives—visual artists, writers, musicians, actors, dancers, filmmakers, gallerists, curators, directors—choose to live and produce their work in places like Racine or even global-facing Chicago?  The number of people who make that decision, I’ve discovered while running a gallery and exhibiting my own work throughout the region, is substantial.

Many creatives are here due to life circumstances: jobs, family, financial exigencies.  Others arrive from elsewhere and decide to stay or, like me, return after living for years in one of our nation’s acknowledged cultural capitals.

Pragmatic reasons certainly influence the decision, affordability being the most obvious.  But there are less quantifiable (and I would argue more crucial) reasons artists choose to live and work in the Rust Belt—the desire for community being the most important.

Community, as both organizing principle and source of strength, infiltrates everything here, borne primarily of having to find ways to do more with less.  When resources are limited—whether collectors, audiences, funders, established institutions and the ecosystem of publications that elevate their programming—you are driven to work collaboratively.  Artists in this part of the country understand, from experience as well as intuitively, that it takes a village to support impactful creative endeavors.

Two projects in which my husband and I are involved in Racine illustrate this communal mindset.  The first, Wall Poems of Racine, is a public art project that foregrounds local literary and design talent.  Students at the local university (University of Wisconsin – Parkside) create designs that incorporate poetry excerpts from local writers, and the designs are scaled up and painted on the sides of buildings throughout the city.

Wall Poems of Racine, which raises awareness of the city’s enterprising literary scene while amplifying the talents of young designers, depends on multiple partners: ArtRoot, the grassroots arts organization that conceived the project; UW-Parkside; writers, visual artists, gallerists, building owners and neighborhood residents who sit on selection committees; a local architect who draws the building elevations; a local sign painter who transfers the design to the building’s wall; and local and state funding sources.

The second project, Origins of Hip Hop, is a yearly summer event presented by Family Power Music, a Racine-based organization that provides educational, entertainment and artistic management services.  To pull off the event, which serves as a platform for educating the public about all facets of the art form, Family Power braids together an array of non-profits, businesses and individuals.  They include an apparel store; a local dance company; an outdoor restaurant that showcases local musicians and where Origins takes place; a crew of local DJs, MCs, and dancers; and local sponsors.  With this diverse set of partners providing expertise and sustained effort, Origins recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary.

Thriving creative communities can be found throughout the Rust Belt in other small- to mid-size industrial cities like Racine.  Places like Sheboygan, Rockford, Peoria, Flint, South Bend, Dayton, Toledo, Canton—the list goes on.  Rust Belt artists are producing work that is ambitious, innovative and self-aware.  People here feel less compelled to perform “coolness” or elide with irony and joyless theoretical critiques the pleasure that comes from the act of making something.   When no one from the cultural elite is paying attention, you have the freedom to think and speak with authenticity.

While some here still strive to impress the gatekeepers in the big cities on the coasts or even internationally, that kind of recognition is not coveted by the majority.  In fact, the whole notion of cultural capitals and hierarchies seems increasingly retrograde, especially when the focus in the arts and society has turned to inclusion.

This essay strives to answer, in some depth, why I decided to return to my hometown, a city of 77,000 with a long industrial legacy, a city challenged by decades of disinvestment, and start a gallery.  My standard response stitches together, in abbreviated form, what I’ve written here.  But lately I’ve been circling back to a passage from Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood.

In that passage, Dillard explains how books and reading fostered the inexorable impetus for her to leave her hometown of Pittsburgh.  But leaving a place that “nourish(ed)” the writer was not without ambivalence.  As Dillard notes, for her and countless others who make the same decision, “(W)e leave it sorrowfully, having grown strong and restless by opposing with all our will and mind and muscle its simple, loving, single will for us: that we stay, that we stay and find a place among its familiar possibilities.”

After three decades, I decided it was time to stop opposing that will.  I’ve found my place among Racine’s familiar—and fertile—possibilities.

Image published by ArtRoot, Racine. 

Vera Scekic is a visual artist who lives and works in Racine, WI.  She is the co-founder and director of OS Projects, a contemporary art gallery located in downtown Racine, and a founding member of ArtRoot, a grassroots organization that builds arts infrastructure and connections within Racine’s creative communities.  Scekic also writes art reviews and is a current contributor to Newcity Chicago.