With the windows once covered in misted vinyl, Christian and Clara Clarke always wondered what lay inside the empty storefront at the University of Chicago’s Campus North Residential Commons, right next to where the husband and wife live and work as resident heads for students in the College.
A year later, after some out-of-the-box thinking in partnership with the University, that once-empty storefront has become a short-term creative activation for both the University and surrounding community as Southspace, an independent art gallery.
Tucked in between Te’amo Boba Bar and Insomnia Cookies, it can be easy to miss the entrance to the small space at 1109 E. 55th St. But inside, the Clarkes have created a place for both students, staff, and community members to share art in an experiential way.
Southspace “gives students a space to gain real world experiences in all areas of exhibiting and in an environment where they can make mistakes and experiment,” Christian Clarke said.
“Even though we are on campus, we’re independent of the University, and it gives students a space beyond their coursework and classes, even if the exhibition is connected to their fields of study,” he added. “The stakes don’t feel as high, it can be less stressful and more fun, and they aren’t getting a grade—for students, there is no other space on campus like this.”
Both he and Clara head Strongin House at Campus North in addition to serving as foster parents to two children, King, 3, and Ace, 1. Christian is a visual artist and graduate student at-large in the Graham School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Clara, AM’20, an alum of the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice, works as a trauma specialist for Healing Hurt People Chicago.
Initially, the Clarkes intended to use the space solely as Christian’s studio—he holds a bachelor of fine arts in painting and drawing from the University of Utah and is taking more studio art classes at Graham—but he quickly realized the 1,400 square feet was more than enough to share. After working on a short-term rental arrangement with the University’s leasing company, and the lights and walls already in place, the idea for a temporary, pop-up public gallery was born, with a goal to “support artists, both students on campus as well as from the local area,” Christian told the Hyde Park Herald.
“We try to be as hands off as possible with the exhibitions and open up the space for proposals from individuals, groups, and organizations, and we’ve enjoyed having students propose and host their own shows with us serving an advisor role,” he added.
Currently underway in the gallery, which opened last October, is its third show to date: a photography exhibition titled Belarus: Faces of Resistance. It was co-curated by Oliver Okun, a UChicago Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature, and Katherine Sinyavin, a fourth-year undergraduate studying English.
Belarus showcases the work of nine Belarusian photojournalists, artists, and filmmakers who documented the revolution of their country’s citizens in 2020. After the controversial re-election of President Aleksandr Lukashenko in August 2020, widespread protests throughout the country broke out, resulting in the exile of his opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, and thousands of protestors were beaten and arrested. Okun and Sinyavin were also assisted by Asst. Prof. Olga Solovieva, who teaches comparative literature in both the College and the Division of the Humanities and helped connect the pair.
The exhibition follows two others—last fall’s Parent | Artist and winter’s A-List Now?—at Southspace, and Christian Clarke said they’re already planning for two more potential shows this fall featuring work from UChicago staff members. The gallery has also served host to Smart Museum Student Advisory Committee meetings, the South East Chicago Commission annual fundraiser, and a poetry reading event organized by local artist Jabril Ali.