Keli Stewart’s Front Porch Arts Center: Uplifting West Side Culture, Creativity

Keli Stewart’s Front Porch Arts Center is on a mission to spotlight Black culture and the arts on the West Side (Credit: Front Porch Arts Center).

On a beautiful day in Chicago, the weather motions everyone outdoors to do their favorite activities, whether dining at a restaurant, attending a lively concert or simply spending quality time with family at home.

The city offers various options for those seeking cultural enrichment, from theater performances to captivating spoken word events, dynamic dance shows and soul-stirring musical performances. Each venue becomes a hub where individuals gather to partake in meaningful experiences and share the enriching messages resonating throughout the community.

In 2019, Keli Stewart created Front Porch Arts Center to uplift the West Side communities of Chicago, which are brimming with cultural productivity.

“The inspiration behind the creation of the Front Porch Art Center stems from my journey as a lifelong artist in this city,” said Stewart, whose work was nurtured in spaces like Gallery 37, Columbia College, Chicago State University, Free Street Theatre and more. 

“Despite my artistic upbringing and education, I noticed a lack of cultural and artistic spaces in my neighborhood, prompting me to establish a center that celebrates West Side culture and provides accessible arts programming.”

The Mission: A Spotlight for Black Culture 

A reading hosted by the Front Porch Arts Center

Front Porch Arts Center’s mission is to spotlight African-American culture and history by fostering environments that delve into and honor the complexities of West Side narratives through artistic expression. 

Through its programming, the Center provides a platform for stories, wisdom, testimonies and creative outpourings characteristic of the cherished tradition of front porch culture.

“Each month, we host events. We have the Westside Writers reading series, a collaboration with the Chicago Public Library’s Austin Branch, held every third Sunday of the month. There’s also Westside Stories, a storytelling open mic showcasing local talents. 

“Currently, we’re also working on compiling these stories to create an online archive,” Stewart said.

Arts, Literature, Dance and Storytelling

One of Front Porch Arts Center's many programs

Front Porch Arts Center is presenting a Youth Paid Summer Program: “Art of Storytelling.” 

This six-week initiative offers a paid arts experience for youth ages 16-24. 

Led by professional actors and artists, participants spend 20 hours per week delving into their narratives. The program concludes with a collective process of writing and performing their original works. This endeavor will be conducted in collaboration with Free Street Theater.

“As for our programming, we embrace various artistic disciplines, including visual arts, literature, dance and storytelling. We partner with local organizations and host outdoor exhibitions, reading series and dance workshops to engage our community in creative pursuits,” Stewart said.

The Center hosted an Austin Artwalk in the summer of 2023, and it will continue this tradition along with two new endeavors this upcoming summer of 2024.

“We’re partnering with the city again for the Summer Dance program and organizing the Austin Artwalk once more, slated for July and August. Additionally, we’re proud to mention our outdoor visual arts exhibition held during the Juneteenth festival last summer. Our monthly reading series celebrates local writers, performers, and authors, while our storytelling platform provides a space for diverse narratives. These initiatives affirm our identity as a multidisciplinary art space committed to fostering community engagement and creative expression,” she said.

Overcoming Challenges

Keli Stewart of Front Porch Arts Center

Front Porch has a big story regarding their efforts to secure funding for a building through a Chicago Recovery Grant.

According to Stewart, Front Porch Arts has had difficulty securing funding for a brick-and-mortar establishment despite twice applying for the grant and feeling misled about the process.

Amid this process, an outside developer swooped in and purchased the property assigned for their project. Despite ongoing negotiations and efforts, the city’s Department of Planning and Development advised them to reapply, citing the change in ownership.

During discussions with the city regarding the contractual agreements proposed by the outside developer, the thought of similar challenges that the Black community faced in the ’60s and ’70s occurred. Front Porch was urged to reapply and followed that guidance but did not receive a grant in the latest round of applications.

But Stewart remains undeterred. 

“Despite facing challenges, such as setbacks in securing funding for a permanent location, Front Porch Center remained committed to our mission. The Center’s upcoming grand opening is on Saturday, June 15, 2024, and will mark a significant milestone as the Center establishes our storefront at 5851 West Madison,” Stewart said.

A Front Porch for Memorable Moments

The stage is set: the speaker is self-assured, the curtain is drawn and anticipation hangs in the air as the audience eagerly awaits the commencement of the performance. 

Whether it’s a surge of excitement, a wave of relief, bursts of laughter, or any other emotion evoked by the forthcoming message, one thing is sure: a memorable moment is on the horizon, ready to unfold and leave a lasting impression.

And it was Front Porch that provided the space for such an occasion.

“One of the most memorable moments for Front Porch Art Center was during a Westside Writers reading series event at the Austin branch library,” Stewart recalled. 

“A participant described the space as a sanctuary, highlighting the importance of our work in providing a welcoming and inspiring environment for local artists and residents.”

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