Project Onward started in the summer of 2004 as a Gallery 37 pilot initiative for 6 artists who had aged out of the local youth job-training organization’s program, but due to their disabilities had no opportunities elsewhere to advance their artistic careers. Gallery 37 was a guided instruction-based program which let the artists explore their ideas outside of a classroom setting. Gallery 37 only supported students up until their senior year of high school, however. Project Onward’s mission is to give artists with disabilities a guided setting to help them use their artistic talents to the fullest potential at any age. Its current participants range in age from their early 20s to early 70s.
The Project Onward budget was impacted one year after Rahm Emanuel took mayoral office in Chicago. According to Bonnie McGrath, a lawyer, journalist and mother of Molly McGrath, an enthusiastic participant in the program since 2004 states “We formed a 501c3 so we could raise money as a charitable group before that, the city covered our expenses and the artists got all the money for their work, but now they get only 50 percent. Project Onward raises money in various ways from donations and grants.”
Project Onward is 100 percent donor funded. Each artist puts his or her personality into the distinctive work. As a category in the art world, Project Onward’s members are part of “outsider art.” Chicago is home to a gallery devoted to this genre called the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. On a recent visit to the Bridgeport Arts Center, now Project Onward’s home, one artist displayed her love of Superman and cats in her work. Another artist recently created a sculpture of the capital building in Springfield. A young man makes masterpieces out of aluminum foil. All of their work is inspired by their own life experiences. The artists sell their completed work to the public. The artists who participate in Project Onward represent over 30 of Chicago’s neighborhoods. And, while they are grateful for their new home, they had a bigger space and more traffic in the Cultural Center which benefited the artists and their work. There, many visitors happened upon it and made their own discoveries, rather than making a pre-meditated decision to travel outside of downtown.
Every third Friday of the month, Project Onward is open late along with the many other galleries, studios, and shops in the Art Center. This monthly event drives the sales up for a small amount of time but still is a lot less compared to the number of visitors who came daily at the Cultural Center. Since their various disabilities prevent them from being considered for most jobs, this drop in potential income has a big impact on the artists.
Project Onward will have a monthly booth at the Randolph Street Market and will feature unique work and the opportunity to have your portrait painted. Keep up with Project Onward here.