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For Alma Wieser, Chicago Arts Heal And Connect

Written by on April 21, 2022

“We really saw this moment of like, ‘Are we going to continue to replicate this inequitable narrative of displacement to the arts? Are we going to just keep moving?'”

-Alma Wieser

Alma Wieser peacefully protests gentrification in Wicker Park by reimagining an art space committed to historically marginalized artists.

Alma Wieser is the director of Wicker Park’s Heaven Gallery and the president and founder of Equity Arts, a community development project focusing on efforts against artists’ displacement with programming out of the gallery. Wieser believes Chicago’s art scene is one of the city’s most important characteristics — however, she doesn’t feel it gets the support it needs. Equity Arts strives to represent BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) artists and leaders by flipping the narrative of arts’ exploitation to one of preservation.

Alma Wieser, founder and president of Equity Arts, believes the art scene is one of the most important parts of Chicago.
All photos by Morgan Ciocca for Vocalo.

“All of the things I loved in this neighborhood were disappearing.”

Alma Weiser

Heaven Gallery is located in the Lubinksi Building in Wicker Park, which has been home to artists and galleries since the early ’80s — one of the first being projectionist James Bond, from 1986 until 2020. Current programming at the gallery includes visual arts exhibitions, virtual artists talks, mediations, workshops and house DJ sets.

In addition to founding Equity Arts, Alma has reorganized Heaven Gallery by bringing in vintage goods and apparel for sale to support the organization and introduced a racial equity initiative for a 60% ALAANA (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American) majority on the board of directors and among featured artists.

For audio interview series “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Alma Wieser discusses holding onto and reimagining the art space, the importance of Chicago’s diversity and how investing in the next generation of leaders is the fuel to spark meaningful change.

“The arts are a healer, they’re a connector. We’re an economic driver.”

-Alma Wieser

Where are you originally from? What drew you to Chicago, and why did you decide to move here? Where in the city do you live now?

I’m actually from the suburbs, so Chicago Heights. But I came to the city every single weekend as a young 20-some-year-old, and then I moved here as soon as I could. I have a very dear love relationship with the city of Chicago. It’s all from the culture. It’s all from the music. I love house music, I love art. And I eventually came here and became the director of Heaven Gallery in Wicker Park. So contemporary art is a big part of my life. House music is a big part of my life. So that’s what drew me into Chicago and all of its beauty. 

I actually consider Wicker Park more in my neighborhood than I do Hermosa, even though I live in Hermosa. Just because I lived in Wicker Park for so long, and I spend so much time here, I feel very connected to the community. And, you know, there’s this thing about Wicker Park that it is very diverse. And I think a lot of people have forgotten that, or don’t see the diversity that exists here. A lot of BIPOC people are still here. And I think it’s really important to, to see them.

Alma Wieser at Heaven Gallery in Wicker Park, in the neighborhood’s Lubinski Building. The gallery holds tight in its original space, even as they have seen other beloved arts spaces disappear.

Can you go a little more in-depth about Heaven Gallery and Equity Arts, how it started and how your work there began? Describe your work in a few words.

About 11 years ago, there was displacement all around me, everything was being displaced. All the things that I loved in this neighborhood were disappearing. The Silver Room was one of them. And then we had the Double Door, which was the next heartbreak. We really saw this moment of like, “Are we going to continue to replicate this inequitable narrative of displacement to the arts? Are we going to just keep moving?”

Equity Arts is a community development project that is working towards anti-displacement to the arts, but at the same time, also working towards racial equity. So, at the beginning, it was about four years ago, I started talking to all my neighbors. I had my sweet dog, Alfred, so even when I would walk my dog, I would see people in their front yard and I’d be like, “Hey, do you live here?” And so I would just find, like, these connections, and I would invite them to the gallery. 

And then we started having monthly meetings for Equity Arts, then it was called Community Arts Wicker Park. But we started having these meetings and kind of thinking about this greater vision for Wicker Park, and how did we see this, you know, unfolding. That’s how it started. And so now we have a BIPOC leaders’ committee. And so this is all BIPOC leaders that are coming together to talk about how we can envision Equity Arts’ programming in the future. But also, we’re launching some of that programming through Heaven Gallery just to familiarize people with how we’re thinking about equity in the arts.

Heaven Gallery hosts rotating art exhibitions; Alma stands in the gallery space surrounded by exhibition “Space To Say,” curated by Francine Almeda and featuring works by Salvador Dominguez, Yesenia Bello and Yasmeen Nematt Alla.

What are the challenges and triumphs you associate with Chicago?

We have so many good people in this city. When you look at the art scene, like, we’re famous for DIY art spaces. And Heaven Gallery started off as definitely DIY, we have since graduated to, like, an official, you know, semi-institution. And one of the challenges, I think, is that there’s not a lot of support for the arts. The arts are a healer, they’re a connector. We’re an economic driver. And I think that that’s something that Equity Arts is attempting to do, is really flipping this narrative, right, of the “starving artist” into this one of abundance. Because, for far too long, we’ve always had to make do on, you know, a shoestring budget, we’re all doing like 10 jobs. And I think this moment, where we’re having to reckon with all of these different things, we’re also reckoning with the exploitation of the arts and of BIPOC culture. So Equity Arts is kind of trying to flip that narrative and recreate — refeature ourselves into a new world that is more equitable to the arts and, and sees us for what we are.

How do you feel the city of Chicago has shaped you?

Chicago, like for so many people, it’s opened my eyes to so many different types of people. I’m thinking about diversity. I’m thinking about culture, I’m thinking about music. I’m thinking about food. So for that, I’m very grateful. But I also feel like gentrification is erasing so much of that. And that’s why I’m doing the work I’m doing, is because I do feel like this authenticity of Chicago is being attacked and becoming endangered.

“There’s this thing about Wicker Park that it is very diverse. And I think a lot of people have forgotten that, or don’t see the diversity that exists here.”

What do you hope your legacy, and the legacy of Equity Arts, is?

I guess my legacy, I want to be, is, “Don’t let anyone tell you no.” Because, from the very inception of this, of this idea of Equity Arts, of buying this building and creating this long-term community asset, everyone has looked at me like I was out of my mind. But I never took heed to any of that, I always was very focused on, “I’m here to do one thing in my life, and it’s to create this project. To buy this building.” And the way that I see it is, I’m getting the key to the building, and I’m going to swallow it. So it’s swallowing the key, and making sure that for the next 100 years that this building will serve Chicago and artists forever.

I really want to create something that is regenerative and sustainable. Thinking about mentorship, thinking about how we could be more sustainable in that regard of creating the next generation of arts leaders. What we’ve learned throughout the process is that when you create the leaders, that’s when you start to make real change.

Follow Equity Arts on Instagram and learn more through their Linktree!

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago — enriching us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Introduction written by Milo Keranen

Interview, transcription and photography by Morgan Ciocca

Audio production by George Chiligiris and Morgan Ciocca

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