Over 20 Years of Service to Chicago Artists

A Tribute to Barbara Koenen

If you’re an artist based in Chicago, chances are that Barbara Koenen has influenced the way you live, work, and create work.  With over 20 years of service, Koenen is retiring as the Director of Artist Resources from the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events as of June 30, 2016. With all that she has contributed to the Chicago Arts Community, it's hard to imagine how the City will manage without her stewardship. Either way, everyone at CAC / CAR are blessed by all of her support and insights. 

For a complete history of time at DCASE please check out her blog

In 1993, Barbara Koenen was offered an opportunity to work on a stained glass window exhibit at O’Hare Airport. To assist with her research, Koenen met Tim Samuelson who was working at Landmarks for the city. Samuelson assisted Koenen both with the in-depth research about the windows and the means of conservation. This collaboration led to a long working history between Koenen and Samuelson. Subsequent to that, the two worked on Chicago’s first public art streetscape. Samuelson gave historical background and Koenen led the process that commissioned 20 artists to create over 200 artworks in a 1.5 mile section of Martin Luther King Drive in historic Bronzeville. With Samuelson's help, Koenen created the Chicago Tribute Markers of Distinction program, intended to commemorate the creations and innovations of Chicagoans - from Richard Wright to the Marx Brothers, Ida B. Wells and Enrico Fermi -  in the neighborhoods where they lived. 

When in 1999, Koenen moved to Cultural Planning, she and Samuelson curated the Tree Studios show with Barton Faist, and worked to save that historic building and tell the story of the artists it housed. She also assisted with Chicago’s first two city-assisted artist live/work developments – Switching Station Artists Lofts in East Garfield Park and ACME Artists Condominiums in Bucktown – and later provided counsel to the Bronzeville Artist Lofts, the Cornerstone Development Artists Housing in Washington Park, the Hairpin Artist Lofts in Avondale, Dorchester Artists Housing Cooperative and the Pullman Artist Housing, and several projects that advanced the interests of artists all over the city.

CAR came about as a result of an invitation from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation to the Chicago Dept of Cultural Affairs to participate in their Marketplace Empowerment for the Arts initiative, this initiative focused primarily on developing workshops. Koenen felt that as a City, their constituency was broader than what would be served by a limited number of workshop participants, so she asked Tremaine if they could do research to devise a solution that could serve the entire city of artists. Through an extensive survey of artists' space and technical assistance needs, and a series of focus groups, Koenen gained an understanding of many things that artists said they needed: affordable space, business skills, jobs, grants and funding, community, and validation. "Access to information" seemed to be the underlying theme. Koenen asked Tremaine if the city could build a website that would be a portal to information about all these areas and a platform for programs in 2003.

When Koenen hired Sara Schnadt as the technology master, she proposed making CAR a community-contributed site built in open-source. That was an important ethos that permeated our thoughts about CAR moving forward, and it yielded a site that has proven flexible and accommodating. CAR was and remains an egalitarian platform across artistic disciplines and across social and community groups, uniting the community and making it stronger.  

When asked about her favorite aspect of CAR, Koenen responded, "I love that CAR is by artists and for artists. Pretty much everyone who has worked on CAR, from me and Sara, to our artist-researchers, to the web designers and developers, is an artist. There is a spirit of generosity that permeates the site in every aspect. So many of the people who built CAR over the years have gone on to amazing other achievements. I love the Artist Stories / Conversations with CAR, because it is good to know about others experiences. I also found my current studio on CAR, so Spacefinder is a plus."  

In the past couple years, Koenen has coordinated Chicago Artists Month, using it as a way to connect artists to each other and to local resources, funding, publicity and a platform for innovative projects in the neighborhoods. CAM has featured a start-up ethnographic film series in Woodlawn, Art + Restaurant + Fashion Walks in Southeast Chicago, listening parties in the barbershop in Lawndale, crafting bees on Devon Avenue, and hundreds of other projects throughout the city. More recently, Koenen was part of the DCASE team to produce the Lake FX Summit + Expo, which introduced the first A+R auditions, evening showcases, Teach-In, Festival of Chicago Film Festivals, Chick Crits and clinics to a robust array of workshops, panels and conversations with local and national arts leaders.

It has been over 20 years that Koenen has worked with the city. In her blog post, Koenen mentions that she has worked for the City 19 1/2 years longer than she thought she would, and for much of that time she was amazed that she was actually being paid to do work that was so much fun and so rewarding. "It is wonderful to have had the opportunity to make a difference," Koenen said. 

When asked what's next, Koenen said, "I have rented a space on the west side that will house my studio and office, and I am planning to reorient my art practice there. I hope to build a city-wide creative reuse program that shares one person's surplus with another's need. New York City's Materials for the Arts is a great inspiration for me for that. I want to commemorate the 15th anniversary of 9/11, especially those who have been adversely impacted by all that has entailed, with an exhibition and conversation series that I hope to launch this fall. Who know knows what else will present itself? I am interested in being open."

Published by Jennifer DePoorter on Wed, 07/06/2016 - 9:47am
Updated on Wed, 07/20/2016 - 10:35am