For the past few years, creative people have been moving art studios and workshops have been into the industrial buildings throughout East Garfield Park, usually near the Union Pacific West Metra Line railroad tracks.
Art collector and police officer Corry Williams, however, wanted to do more than just inhabit his own creative space. He wanted to open a gallery where long-time community residents would feel like they belong. And he wanted to encourage local artists, especially local youths, to explore their artistic talents and pursue their creativity.
Now in its fourth year, the 345 Art Gallery, located at 345 N. Kedzie Ave., is surrounded by studio spaces, Breakthrough Ministries’ family services building and apartments. Williams said he is always on the lookout for local talent from the West Side, in general, and East Garfield Park, specifically. And he is currently working on expanding the existing building to the lots to the south and east of it, so that he would be able to display more sculptures and other artwork. Williams said he’s been interested in arts since high school.
“I was always intrigued [about] stories of art pieces I would see,” Williams recalled. “And I also had a landlord who was an art collector, who traveled across the world. His name was Bob Ford. I remember he’d invite me into [his home] I was just very intrigued by that. I was about 14 or 15 years old.”
Williams went on to become a police officer, serving in the 11th District, but his interest in the art never waned. He became a collector and, as he got older, he decided to open a gallery of his own.
“Growing up on the West side of Chicago, I knew it was lawmaking an art gallery, a venue to bring culture that was lost back to neighborhood,” Williams said. “I thought it would be great addition to neighborhood as well. Something positive to not only residents in the community, but kids that walk back and forth to school.”
He decided to try to buy a building that last housed the Greater St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church. By 2015, the church had been abandoned for several years. Williams said that he was able to get in touch with the church’s pastor, who liked the idea enough to sell the building.
Since then, Williams has exhibited work by artists from the West Side and elsewhere. Williams said that he likes to change out art in the gallery once every 45 days. He said that he is open to all types of art and he always welcomes artists who have never had their work exhibited before.
“Every time I switch out, I give opportunities for local, up-and-coming artists,” Williams said. “Right now, I have 15 artists waiting. Artists are constantly calling me, especially from the neighborhood.”
There are two paintings that remain fixtures. One is a “before and after” painting that shows the building when it was a church and its subsequent transformation into an art gallery. The other mainstay is a drawing by a girl who Williams said would keep peeking inside the building when he was working on converting the space into a gallery.
“When I opened up, she was the first one to bring a piece of art,” he recalled. “She said, ‘Can I hang art in your gallery?’ and I told her, ‘Absolutely.’ She just didn’t have a place to have her work displayed in her community. One day, she might be one of those artists who sell pieces for $100 million. You never know. This just inspires her [to] keep working on her craft and her art.”
The gallery also hosts events and after-school programs for local teens. Williams said that the major reason why he wanted his current location was because several schools are within walking distance of the building and many of students pass by the building every day. While the gallery was always meant for the community as a whole, Williams said he was especially interested in getting kids and teens involved.
When asked whether the tensions between black youth and the police have ever been an issue, Williams said that he didn’t have a problem earning the teens’ trust.
“By being from the community, a lot of parents know me,” he said. “Through different workshops, art showcases and art contests that I have at the gallery, it has become known what we’re doing for the community and [for] the kids who need an outlet or an opportunity to display their work.”
Williams said that he hopes his gallery can play a small part in building a homegrown art community.
“I hope that I can be a catalyst for those who actually grew up in the neighborhood, made it out and became successful,” he said. “I hope this signals that they can come back to the neighborhood and open up a business, too.”