Arts Lawn, a community-centered space in Washington Park, celebrates opening

UChicago’s Arts + Public Life launches flexible area dedicated to outdoor arts programming, public green space and more

Ten years ago, Arts + Public Life at the University of Chicago began its stewardship of the Arts Block on Garfield Boulevard in Washington Park.  

The launch of the Arts Lawn marks a new step in community-centered artistic space. The grand opening, held Oct. 7, demonstrated the wide range of what the Arts Lawn can be and advertised its common purpose: creating, sharing and enjoying arts and culture.  

Occupying a set of formerly undeveloped lots next to the Green Line Performing Arts Center, the Arts Lawn is an opportunity for the expansion of ambitious outdoor arts programming and community reclamation of public green space. 

Initial planning for the Arts Block—a collection of commercial and cultural spaces managed by Arts + Public Life along the 300 East block of Garfield Boulevard—centered a series of conversations between community partners, UChicago officials, practicing artists and city representatives.  

“The idea of having outdoor space dedicated to the arts really originated in those processes,” said Nootan Bharani, associate director of Cultural Stewardship and University Partnerships for Arts + Public Life. “A thread that was continuous throughout, and in the actual master plan, is that there would be outdoor open space accessible to the community.” 

Research has shown that interacting with green spaces improves health. But the Arts Lawn isn’t just a park. It’s designed to serve a multitude of purposes, from solo reflection to dance performances to pop-up shops to film screenings. 

“This is a University and city investment in Washington Park, because Washington Park deserves to have civic assets just as the rest of Chicago does,” said Isis Ferguson, APL’s senior director of Engagement and Partnerships. “This is a site that supports and underscores and creates connectivity. This is what communities deserve—we deserve green spaces, we deserve art spaces.” 

Community hub 

The Arts Lawn aims to create a community hub while honoring and continuing to build the history of Garfield Park and Washington Park. As the Arts Block has come into being through community conversations, APL has sought to remember the spaces that preceded it.  

“It connects to the legacy of cultural production that has always existed on this corridor and in this neighborhood,” said Ferguson.  

At its core, the Arts Lawn is about accessibility. “One of our tenets, our specific values for bringing about the development of all of our spaces, is accessibility and invitation,” Bharani said. “Bringing the programming and events to the Arts Lawn and outdoors is yet another intentional removal of barriers. It’s another encouragement for folks to join in.” 

Since its launch in 2018, the Lawn’s neighboring Green Line Performing Arts Center has been hosting a full roster of events and programs, but they are often at capacity. The outdoor space on the Arts Lawn will allow for larger and more flexible public offerings. 

However, the Arts Lawn won’t be operating at full capacity right away. APL plans to introduce programming over several years in a phased approach that will enable a thoughtful assessment of the best way of utilizing the space.  

Initially, APL will build and explore the capacity of the Arts Lawn by extending existing programming. Teenagers participating in APL’s youth arts education programs will have the opportunity to meet outside for workshops and even showcase their work on the Arts Lawn.  

Tranquil space for reflection 

The Arts Lawn is intended to be both a programming space for a wide variety of arts events and a green space for the community. Taking a deliberate approach to the expansion of outdoor programming will allow APL to assess the balance between specific events and general access.  

“The intention for the Arts Lawn isn’t just activity,” said Ferguson. “It’s also relaxation, quiet reflection, time in nature.” 

The Arts Lawn is designed as a flexible space, with an open eastern portion of meandering paths that loop around the main lawn and a more structured western section that includes an open-air pavilion and a vending area. The entire area is wheelchair accessible and built to remove any barriers to access, with the goal that everyone should feel comfortable to make the space their own. 

Less obvious on casual examination—but no less important—is the Arts Lawn’s commitment to green infrastructure. The space is equipped with a self-sustaining water management system that utilizes plantings, soil, and a series of underground structures including retention bins and subgrade gravel to collect and recirculate rainwater. This means that the Lawn is fully separate from the sewer system of the City of Chicago, avoiding further stress on local infrastructure.  

Grand opening of the space 

The Arts Lawn’s opening event on Oct. 7 did more than simply inaugurate the space.  

“Public and community is the bread and butter of what we do,” said Ferguson. “We decided to showcase different design elements of the space as a way to indicate how it will be used in the future.” 

The event launched with a performance by Kuumba Lynx Youth and a welcome from MC Mario Smith, followed by a performance from the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School marching band. After the opening ceremony, DJs from Miyagi Records provided the soundtrack for APL’s Vends + Vibes marketplace. The projection screen on the side of the Green Line Performing Arts Center was used for the first time for the premiere of D-Composed’s short film “Alter Call.” 

“This experiment of what Arts + Public Life is on the Arts Block is only successful when there’s shared stewardship,” said Ferguson. “I know the Arts Lawn can be successful because so many people can activate it. 

This story was adapted from the website of the UChicago Arts blog, In Practice