Photographer Suzette Bross is an artist with many plans. With work in the permanent collections of The Art Institute of Chicago, The National Gallery of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, and the Block Museum of Art, Bross is now trying to get art of a different sort into one of Chicago's most complex and fraught institutions, the Chicago Public School system, with a new project called CPSLives.
At a spring kick-off event, Bross told an audience of arts supporters, administrators and civic leaders, "Our inaugural project will run for a year and a half. The artists together with students, teachers and principals will work to tell the story of their school and will show what makes that school unique." She pointed out that, "CPS is often talked about as one school, when in fact there are over 660 very different schools in the third largest school system in the country."
Personally Bross says that several years ago, she began to understand the systemic diversity within CPS when a close friend became a CPS teacher in a military school. She recalled exclaiming, "A military school? Really?" It turned out that the military academy was not the only one, but one of 5. As she discovered, there are art schools, single sex schools, neighborhood schools, magnet schools, charter schools, and even an agricultural science high school in the city of Chicago. She understood, "This is not a one size fits all system and it shouldn’t be; there are over 400,000 kids in our public school system."
From an artistic standpoint, the scale of the system and the sheer number of students and staff meant it was impossible for one artist to fully capture and tell the stories of 660 schools. That was when Bross decided to gather a group of artists to help her make her project vision a reality. Bross says that finding the right group of artists each committed to finding the unique voice of their chosen school was the way to go.
She explains, "There is a history of artist group projects that have made an impact. Edward Steichen organized the groundbreaking Family of Man Show at the Museum of Modern Art. Rick Smolan & David Elliot organized Day in the Life of America." Bross herself participated in City2000, a project started by Gary Comer where photographers told different stories of Chicago during the year 2000. She also points to Jack Jaffe's Changing Chicago, which she says revived interest in photography as a catalyst of social change. Jim Iska, Melissa Ann Pinney, Bob Thall and Jay Wolke, four of the artists who are part of CPSLives, worked on that project, while one other, Jan Tichy, looked at Changing Chicago for his project with the Museum of Contemporary Photography a few years back. For Bross, "Artists are outside the box thinkers as well as wonderful and visionary story tellers."
Most Chicagoans are familiar with CPS's challenges and public fights, but the sheer scale and complexity of the School system means that most people see headlines and not people. One goal of Bross's endeavor is to make CPS more personal and real for the public at large as well as to bring the vitality of art to the people who teach and learn in area public schools every day. By blending contemporary art and working artists with an average school day, Bross aims to give artists new inspiration that will in turn become a vehicle for understanding as well as story telling. From students to teachers and administrators, many members of the public education sphere are given the chance to share their own experience and perspective, in a wholly positive light. Artists are given access to an audience that may not be familiar with the world of galleries, art fairs or the lives of working artists in general.
Bross's CPSLives pairs some of Chicago's top artists with Chicago Public Schools for one academic year. The collaboration will provide a unique arts education for students. The stories are showcased on the website, and will be exhibited and celebrated throughout the city of Chicago. CPSLives website is a living archive for all projects, and accessible for researchers, educators, administrators, policymakers, students, families, and the general public. CPSLives produces artwork that provides a unique window in to the Chicago Public School system in order to help, as the website states, generate support and reinforcing belief in the Chicago Public School mission; to "provide a high-quality public education for every child in every neighborhood".
The ultimate hope for CPSLives is to showcase the variety of schools in a number of ways: having artists work with a school to find out what makes their school unique, or to have artists work on a specific theme with a number of schools. Work may be viewed on the project's website, as well as on social media platforms so the public can see what the artists are doing in, almost real time. Bross hopes to someday produce a book.
Already, there are plans underway for shows in the local library branches nearest to the featured schools, as well as a show at EXPO CHICAGO this fall with Arts Alliance Illinois, plus a show with the City of Chicago as part of the Year Creative Youth.
Of course mounting a project as extensive as this one requires funding, and at the launch event this past spring, Bross enthusiastically compelled those in attendance to support CPSLives. You can too: www.cpslives.com/donate