Before coming to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I researched the hell out of art institutions. I found myself asking questions like, “Where can I go to experiment with nontraditional materials?”; “Which school will allow me to blend my focus on Black culture through created objects?”; “Which institution will have me in all my interests, without asking me to squeeze into one category?”
Again and again, I returned to SAIC’s website. The site was minimal, focused on student work, and featured the following phrase: “Here is where innovation happens.”
The word “innovation” gets thrown around a lot, but it bears mentioning that SAIC is known worldwide as one of the nation’s top universities. SAIC has had artists who built the Lincoln Memorial, architects who rebuilt the city after the historic Chicago fire; painters, like Georgia O’Keeffe (1905-1906) who changed the world; animators, like Walt Disney, whose visions have defined an industry.
Juxtaposed against this, though, is the knowledge that “an art school” is a place that reflects the deep divides of the country. Before I came here, many people in my community warned me about what comes with attending a Predominantly White Institution like SAIC — the stress, loneliness, and potential mental health side effects of it. They often questioned if I would simply be a token or a pawn that the university would use to say that they value Black Indigenous People of Color in image, without valuing me, my history, or my ideas in any substantial way.
Throughout my time here, I have been privy to an institution in the midst of change.
Well-documented is how this school changed from a Beaux-Arts French style art school to a contemporary art school; however, the lesser known lore of SAIC is that it was never meant to succeed.
SAIC began just after the Civil War ended in 1866; but the building burned down in 1871 – in the middle of the Reconstruction era. SAIC built its reputation in a type of art practice that was divorced from critiquing the structures that would define it a hundred years later – often excluding women and people of color. By 1970 when the university needed revitalization to accommodate contemporary art practices that didn’t simply focus on artmaking but on the social aspect of art, SAIC began working with the Black artists who revitalized the institution through social practice. An article by Rebecca Zorach titled, “Art and Soul: An Experimental Friendship Between the Street and A Museum,” in the book Institutions and Imaginaries, details how Black artists and community members, who comprised the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (shortened to AFRICOBRA) pushed SAIC to become involved with the Black community in Chicago to offer storefront museum exhibitions off-campus. Today, SAIC still operates out of non-campus places, like Homan Square at Nichols Tower. That same year, the SAIC Flaxman Library was started.
The 280 Building was built in 1973 by the architecture firm SOM, and the AIC thought that they would be able to utilize the extra space for their collection, but that never happened. Instead, SAIC expanded its campus into the Sharp Building in 1989.
That was the same year SAIC began a discussion of “Time-Based Arts” as an accessible way to do art. This sprung digital and internet-based applications. After that, the school floated along relatively stably.
But in 2020, a tense racial climate forced SAIC to rethink itself as an institution. This was the Diversity Equity and Inclusion initiative that would spawn the Cultural Oasis and several other structural changes.
In all of this, my question is, how does the place and the space of this institution facilitate collaboration for students?
Collaboration is a pedagogical practice, and the laws and policies regarding group art limit the effectiveness of individuals in doing collective art on a large scale. Maybe the question of collaboration is an institutional question.
The redesigned website, the remodeled library, and the Cultural Oasis are new spaces that can tell the story about place at SAIC. All three have humble beginnings, are designed for the entire SAIC community with a direct aim to help the community learn, and have been through recent renovations within the past three years.
Illustration by Shina Kang
The Website: Accessibility 20 Years In The Making
In 2003, when the SAIC website was launched, it was designed the way all early internet pages were: the type was small with competing fonts, the page was unclear in its audience, and only those who were a part of the school community had insight into what was being communicated.
In 2008, the site got its first bit of branding when the SAIC box logo appeared against a black background for the first time.In 2013, the design of the website primarily reflected the white cube aesthetic popularized by De Stijl and Bauhaus groups. Using this go to aesthetic of modern art institutions, SAIC finally had large, clear, static photos of staff, posed in front of artwork. Finally, the website had a sense of its audience and presented a menu for “prospective students, current students, and alumni.”
The site redesign in 2018 had the photographs updated frequently to give a sense of time. The subject matter of the images changed to action shots of students working in the studio, guests at the AIC practicing drawing or writing, or visiting speakers addressing a crowd. These images worked best on a laptop or desktop.
In 2023, accessibility became the focus. The words are larger and the school’s colors — black, pink, and teal blue — are featured through block-building aesthetics. There are more video elements rather than scrolling pictures. The landing page greets you with an action-packed looped video that cuts every two seconds from one dynamic scene to the next. The images have metadata with descriptions.
The website today is more for the outsider looking in, exhibiting students’ work and explaining the different elements, buildings, programs, and workshop spaces that make up this campus. It has the feeling of a fish bowl, with students and buildings on display for anyone interested in seeing them.
But some current students have complaints.
Zeynep Karahasam (BFA 2026) said that the website presents an ideal, but doesn’t provide details that current students need. For instance, the undergraduate pathways are generic. If you need more detailed information you have to ask professors and advisors to help find the information.
“A road map for undergraduate pathways exists but it’s buried and you have to find it,” Karahasam said.
The Rowdy Library
In 1971, the “library” was a reading room in the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at AIC. Photos from school archives show that student use of the space necessitated its growth. With the 1976 completion of the 280 Building, formerly called “the Columbus Drive facility” the library relocated.
After 13 years in what was affectionately called “the magic basement” (as detailed in a book by the same title written by alumnus Cassidy Marie (MA in Art Education 1997) the library was relocated again in 1989. When the Alice R. Sharp building (formerly known as “the Champlain Building”) was remodeled, the sixth floor was dedicated as the John M. Flaxman Library. This was made possible by the contribution of Flaxman’s family, in honor of their late son who graduated from SAIC in 1988. The Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection, the only library special collection for many years, had a small room on the sixth floor.
The library was small and cramped, according to Holly Dankert, Head of Research and Access Services at the Flaxman. She recalls using the space. Students had to sit in the library instruction room airplane style — two to a row on each side of the room with a narrow gap in between. By 2006, library staff offices and the library special collections, featuring the Joan Flasch Artists’ Book Collection, had expanded to the 5th floor.
In 2013, the library saw another transformation when the teal blue wall behind the reference desk was widened and repainted, and other color changes were made. Apple computers sat on high desks close to the stacks, crowded with students.
In the most recent change — a big one, which was completed in 2023 — the elevator wall is white and the display cases have been removed, cleaving the last homey piece of furniture from the area. The exhibition case was blasted open to connect the fifth and sixth floor, making the two halves of the library — Special Collections / Joan Flasch and Main collections / John Flaxman — one cohesive whole. The floors are connected by a metal staircase that sings when you pass between the two.
Students are quiet and the space is bigger. The carpets are white. In the library, the story of John Flaxman and Joan Flasch and the sheer amount of time the space has been a part of SAIC helps define the place.
When asked what the purpose of the space is, Ethan Allen (BFA 2024), a senior library assistant, said that the library exists to help the community with research needs.
Jude Kharchou (FVNMA 2025), also a senior library assistant, said that the “vibe of the library leads many people to ‘shush’ each other without prompting, even though this isn’t a shush library. When people are in the library they look like they know what they are doing and it leads people to feel very intimidated by the space.”
The Intentions of the Cultural Oasis
The Cultural Oasis is located on the 14th floor of the Sullivan Center — by far, one of the more isolated spaces on campus. The design of the space is defined by its use value.
The impetus for the Cultural Oasis was talks about anti-racism in 2020. During that time, it was made clear by student affinity groups and student leadership that the school needed a space where students who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color could find community.
Statistics show that the overall student demographic at SAIC has largely skewed international, white, and Asian; while Hispanic, Black, and Native American have the lowest enrollment by proportion. At the onset of the Cultural Oasis, students were involved in every aspect of the design process.
“We engaged the students in the design first as opposed to after the construction. In this process listening is valued,” said sculpture student Laura Bustamante (MFA 2023), who was a graduate student during the time the space was being developed.
One of the largest pieces of student artwork featured on the wall “Layering Our Feelings,” by Fernanda Carvalho is an interactive piece where students can write statements to share their thoughts. Some of the thoughts written on the piece are questions like,”Where does a third culture kid find belonging?”; “They told me I wasn’t dark enough or white enough, so what am I?”; “I love being Black!”; and “I am from the Middle East. Hala Wallah Poggers.”
An ash-colored tree sits in the far corner of the space filled with cards written by the founding community members indicating their wishes for the Cultural Oasis.
“My wish for this space is for students of color to meet and collaborate. I hope it inspires growth and big changes in the structure of SAIC. I hope the administration prioritizes the needs and frustration of these students more too,” reads one message.
“This space has only existed for a year, and I hope one day it will be as large as the library,” said Bustamante, the current coordinator for the Cultural Oasis.
Features include a rainbow ceiling made out of dyed industrial felt, a polished concrete floor, a stainless steel refrigerator that is often restocked with leftovers from school events, a meditation closet with adjustable mood lighting and soft bean bags, movable wooden furniture and lounge chairs with high backs, a series of long desks with wheels, an abundance of living plants, and a large TV monitor mounted on the wall connected to Apple desktop computers set off to the side.
There’s a bookshelf with interactive board games, cards, and books with titles like “Organize Your Own: The Politics and Poetics of Self-Determination Movements,” “Talking to Action: Art Pedagogy and Activism in the Americas,” “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” “Radical Empathy: Finding a Path to Bridging Racial Divides, and Figuring the Plural.”
Listening to the needs of the students means that the space is always in flux. The Cultural Oasis was created to be a gathering space for BIPOC who otherwise would have a hard time finding each other on campus.
At the conclusion of its first year in 2022, the staff of the Cultural Oasis held a meeting to reflect on how the space was utilized, possible improvement, and concerns. The students who gathered addressed issues such as the name of the space, the programing to non-programing ratio, and the inclusion of spices and other diverse foods in the kitchenette.
Bustamante addressed concerns about the word “oasis.” She said that students involved with the establishment of the space said that the space was given the title “oasis” as a way to keep the intention of the space as a place where BIPOC narratives are centered and to help students navigate the institution.
However, much of that intention had not been explicitly stated anywhere in the space. This lack of context left many new students confused, so “a space by and for students of color” was added to the door at the end of Fall 2023.
The relaxed nature of the space is less intimidating for students. Students say they enjoy the fact that the room acts as a respite from the serious and crowded spaces around the SAIC campus.
Aashina Singh (MFA 2024, Design for Emerging Technologies) said she uses the space on the weekends, outside of normal business hours. That’s when she has the most fun hanging out with friends.
“What happens with me and my friends? We stay away from electronics, we talk to each other and we play games. For example, the other night my friend was stressed about exhibition installation,” Singh said. “She came and she wanted to hang out in the Cultural Oasis. We sat and we de-stressed by playing Uno. The Cultural Oasis, I feel, is fantastic; often after 4 p.m. on weekends we laugh like drunk people.”