Take a scruffy downtown block left vacant by the recession. Add hundreds of restless young people who need jobs and outlets for their creativity. And put them in contact with thousands of nearby office workers and shoppers in the summer heat.
Sound like a recipe for urban disaster? Not in Chicago, where that very mixture has created a dream come true.
The result is called Gallery 37, a project that is helping to revive a stretch of Chicago's State Street while giving local high school students summer jobs and training in the arts.
The young people and their teachers work under tents on a block (numbered 37 on municipal zoning maps) where older structures were demolished and plans for a high-rise office complex stalled. Entering its fourth year, Gallery 37 has proven so popular that any attempts to move it for eventual construction may meet with protests.
"It is a magical art factory, a fertile zone for minds, a golden opportunity, a wise and worthy investment," raves Sharmin Ghaznavi, one of 500 students in last year's program.
The U. S. Conference of Mayors also had high praise, recently giving Chicago a coveted "City Livability" award for Gallery 37. And New Orleans and Tucson are using the project as a model for their own versions, officials say.
The three-acre Chicago property is lent by the would-be developer. A mixture of federal, state, city and private funds helps pay the $800,000 annual budget for salaries and supplies. (The program has political clout because its chairwoman is Maggie Daley, wife of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.)
Rolled back into the funding is about $140,000 from the students' artworks, which have been sold at a popular on-site retailing tent, and from commissions for painting murals and benches in Chicago.
Gallery 37 students are paid minimum wage, not bad at a time when any summer job is hard to find. They compete through auditions and portfolios for a chance to expand their artistic horizons at a time when budget cutbacks have devastated cultural classes in Chicago public schools.
Adele Simmons, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which helps support the program, urges other cities to examine Chicago's model. "If you want people to see the possibility of our nation's kids," she says, "just take them to Gallery 37."