May 27, 2011

Op shop gives art a chance

Op Shop founder and artist Laura Shaeffer has always had an affinity for the unconventional. After receiving her degree in sculpture and painting, she moved to Europe instead of pursuing a Master’s degree like most of her college friends. Then, in 2004, she and her husband, fellow artist Andrew Nord, opened up their small Hyde Park townhouse to contemporary artists in a one-of-a kind experiment. “I had wanted to open up another gallery space, but we couldn’t pay the rent; it was too expensive,” Shaeffer explained. So they turned their townhouse into a studio, called HOME, where local Chicago artists could display their artwork and the neighbors could get to know each other. After three years, the hassle of living in a studio 24 hours a day took its toll on Shaeffer and her two children, and she suspended the studio.

But the hunger to cultivate artistic innovation and stoke community collaboration was still there. “I had already been thinking about how to create a temporary public arts venue, a community or cultural center within the community,” Shaeffer said. Unfortunately, the rents for space in Hyde Park were prohibitively high. So Shaeffer decided to talk to Peter Castle, the head of MAC realty. She gave him a sense of her vision for this temporary art space, and Castle agreed to give her a building on East 55th Street for 45 days for a nominal fee. And so in November 2009, with collaboration from Nord, Amanda Englert and David Schalliol, the first incarnation of the Op Shop, or Opportunity Shop, was born. While the Op Shop is constantly changing location and concept, its core goal of community-building through art remains the same. “We want to creat[e] temporary communities with lasting connections,” Shaeffer said. The idea is that the community fostered out of a one to two-month Op Shop will continue to flourish wherever the next Op Shop is housed.

When asked how she came up with the name for the Op Shop, Shaeffer explained that she drew inspiration from her time abroad. In England and in Australia, thrift stores are called ‘opportunity shops.’ “I really liked that idea. We were also going to be an opportunity shop, but we would be dedicated to other forms of opportunity,” she said. For local community members and artists, the first Op Shop gave them the chance to display their own original pieces. “The first Op Shop was very visual,” Shaeffer explained. Seven local artists, whose interactive art had been displayed at the Art Institute, were invited to showcase their work. Additionally, community members who wanted to hold lectures, readings, and dance and music performances were invited to do so. As for funding, Shaeffer and her husband shelled out the money for the vendor’s license, rent, insurance, and food and drink, and then raised back the funds from potluck dinners held in the shop.

The concept for the second Op Shop, located on East 53rd street and Lake Shore Drive, for example, centered on an ad hoc theme. This shop, launched in May 2010, featured a lot of musical performances, including performances from several University of Chicago bands. There were film screenings, a mobile animation station, and the launching of a garden center. Throughout the process, local churches and other nonprofits have collaborated with Shaeffer to get these projects implemented. The United Church of Hyde Park, for example, and the Kiwanis Club of Hyde Park were both instrumental in paying building fees and providing grants.

The third incarnation of the Op Shop on Harper featured a series called “30 days, 30 people.” “We learned a lot from the second shop and realized that what people had the most difficulty doing was giving up their time. So we asked thirty people in the Hyde Park area to commit to one day. They could do whatever they wanted with that day, read a book for four or six hours, have a meeting, show an art project. It gave them an increasing sense of ownership,” Shaeffer explained.

When asked about the future of the Op Shops, Shaeffer said that she has big dreams. She is in the process of getting nonprofit status for her latest concept, “South Side Hub of Production.” SSHOP, as Shaeffer calls it, would be a collaboration with local grassroots organizations that would result in the formation of a local community cultural center. Ideally, there will be a recording studio, artists-in-residence, art studio spaces, and a library made up exclusively of self-published work. Ultimately, it would also provide some stability for Shaeffer and her future Op Shops. “You know how in cartoons hobos carry around bundle sticks: those sticks with a bundle at the top of it full of all their worldly goods?” said Shaeffer. “That’s sort of how we are right now. It would be nice to have a home.”