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J. Gibran Villalobos (CLA'20): Uniting Civic Leadership and Contemporary Art in Chicago

Amidst many current challenges, including a contentious election season, global pandemic, economic recession, and renewed national reckoning over racial injustice and inequality, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago launched a new exhibition titled “The Long Dream.” The exhibition reveals our nation's greatest challenges and provides hope for a brighter future during these uncertain times.

Contemporary art has always been deeply ingrained in Chicago's civic life. Art reflects stories and experiences, and has power to highlight marginalized voices whose stories must be heard. The policy issues that divide and unite us are inherently reflected in the lives, work, and interpretations of contemporary artists.

J. Gibran Villalobos (CLA'20), Assistant Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, works to close the gap between civics and current contemporary art. With a background in contemporary art and arts administration, Villalobos cares deeply about highlighting the work of local Chicago communities and artists. He joined the 2020 cohort of the Civic Leadership Academy expecting to engage primarily with the few other arts-focused fellows in his cohort. He quickly found many allies—and unlikely partners—from various civic spaces represented in the 2020 cohort.

The CLA experience inspired a new project for Villalobos: an exhibition that drew clear lines between contemporary art and civic leadership in Chicago. Upon reviewing the artists and pieces to be included in “The Long Dream” exhibition, he saw clearly the themes of the series intertwined in the work of his CLA colleagues. Villalobos invited several CLA fellows from his cohort, including those working in criminal justice, transportation, finance, youth empowerment, and more, to take part in the exhibition by writing short descriptive “labels” for the art and participating in public talks with the artists.

Villalobos called upon Ricardo Cifuentes, Vice President of External Affairs at Esperanza Health Centers, to reflect on Cuerpos Desechables by artist Moises Salazar. Cifuentes works to get health resources to our most vulnerable populations, whether they are physically confined to cages or held hostage by oppressive economic structures. COVID-19 has exacerbated many issues facing these populations, and this moment underscores the need for reflection. Reflecting on Salazar’s piece, Cifuentes writes, “Beneath the brightly colored paper, it's impossible to miss the psychological pain that undocumented immigrants often carry while isolated from the benefits of citizenship. Not only are their bodies systemically disposed of, but their very futures, hopes, health, and lives.”

Ricardo Cifuentes and Cuerpos Desechables. (Artwork photo credit: The Long Dream.)

Era Laudermilk, Deputy of Legislative Affairs at the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender reflects on Jina Valentine's Aporia: Fault Lines Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. The piece captures historical and current challenges present in criminal justice reform, including prevention and criminalization of Black people for exercising their right to vote. Laudermilk writes, “Jina Valentine used iron gall ink on paper made from a hand-sewn cotton quilt, both symbolic of the abuses of slavery, to trace the redrawing of district lines through years of gerrymandering, which seeks to manipulate the vote.”

Era Laudermilk and Aporia: Fault Lines Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. (Artwork photo credit: The Long Dream.)

Audrey Wennink, Director of Transportation at the Metropolitan Planning Council comments on Andy Slater's Limited Reach. The piece invites audiences to imagine themselves moving through Chicago with a visual disability and consider ways to make public transportation more inclusive and accessible for all Chicago residents. Reflecting on Slater's piece, Wennink writes, “This work prompts us to consider how we use sounds for navigation around cities and how sounds contribute to a sense of place. By embracing and showcasing familiar sounds, the recording also challenges us to focus on what's close to home during the COVID-19 era of self-isolation.”

Audrey Wennink

Marshall Hatch Jr., Executive Director of the MAAFA Redemption Project participated in a live performance of “Last Audience: A Performance Manual” with artist Yanira Castro. Inspired by the MAAFA Remembrance Window and its call to action, the conversation explored themes of transformative justice and the historical significance for Chicago communities. The event invited the audience into conversation about artistic expression and asked what law, justice, and redemption means in performance art, West Garfield Park, and the broader city of Chicago.

Marshall Hatch, Jr. and "Last Audience: A Performance Manual." (Artwork photo credit: a canary torsi | Yanira Castro, Last Audience: a performance manual.)

The unique work of artists and civic practitioners go hand in hand. In their respective ways, practitioners and artists each identify opportunities to speak their truth, support individuals and communities, and reform institutions and policies.

January Parkos Arnall, Interim Senior Curator at MCA says, “The Long Dream is an important opportunity for the museum to recognize and celebrate the vibrant and socially-engaged creative community in Chicago. Moments of crisis often bring us together in community, and the exhibition not only includes almost 80 local artists, it also was organized collaboratively by a team of almost 20 staff members in the museum's Artistic Division. The voices of these incredible civic practitioners as they interpret the work in the exhibition, furthers the exhibition's relevance to our city and world at this moment.”

There was some initial hesitancy about the idea of civic practitioners, who are not trained in art, being asked to write labels. Like other museums and archival sites, MCA deeply values the protection of the history and integrity of the artistic works and the intentional diffusion of knowledge about those pieces. Villalobos decided to pursue this unique initiative with confidence, noting, “The responsibility that we place on artists to create visual pieces and build a narrative through art is similar to the responsibility we place on our public servants to create policy and build community.”

Particularly in this moment of great societal challenge, Villalobos believes cultural institutions have a responsibility to look inward, to act with urgency to refresh their perspective, and to consider their attachment to the civic world and those people and communities on the ground. Art museums and institutions should be engaging audiences and artists that have traditionally been underrepresented within their walls. Similarly, civic leaders must look to the arts to challenge, innovate, and shape our path forward as a city and nation.

Villalobos also wants audiences to know that the arts sector is in crisis, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated that challenge. The National Endowment for the Arts' FY 2020 appropriation of $162.5 million, which constitutes only 0.003 percent of the federal budget.

Villalobos says, “Art is something that all individuals, no matter identity or ability, can participate in. The arts provide comfort, resilience, wisdom, and the means for self-expression and connection, which is even more challenging during times such as these. To create a better society for the future, we must invest in the arts today.”

We must ensure the survival of the arts because when we invest in the arts, we invest in communities. Art is connected to all of us, in all forms of social impact and justice work. Through art, we explore critical and timely issues, including immigration, global health, economic empowerment, criminal justice reform, and many others.

This exhibition is bringing together artistic and civic leaders in pursuit of a stronger Chicago and broader nation—in clear alignment with the Civic Leadership Academy's work to bring together Chicago government and nonprofit leaders, all with a shared mission to reform our institutions, policies and systems, and ultimately, improve the lives of Chicagoans.

Villalobos says, “CLA has been key in grounding my language around abstract ideas and building a network to advance progress in Chicago. My work in the contemporary arts space is stronger because I understand how Audrey thinks about transportation, how Ricardo is connecting communities to health resources, and how Era understands criminal justice reform. All of our work is interconnected, but we've never said it aloud. That's what this exhibition is all about: bringing our connections to the forefront.”

Villalobos continues to “light fires” of impact even after his CLA experience. He is part of the CLA arts caucus, a self-initiated group of alumni representing arts organizations who meet monthly to share about their work and find ways to support each other and collaborate.