Red Clay Dance Company Brings “Artivism” to Chicago’s Woodlawn Community

Red Clay Dance Company Brings “Artivism” to Chicago’s Woodlawn Community

In a 2015 interview with The Chicago Reporter, a resident of the Woodlawn community on Chicago’s South Side proclaimed that “the neighborhood is really crying [out] for something, anything, as long as it’s helpful.” His words were a harbinger of things to come, as Woodlawn is now in the midst of a renaissance that gained additional momentum this month with the grand opening of Red Clay Dance Company’s new facility in the heart of the community.

It’s a new beginning for Red Clay Dance, which has a space all its own for the first time since it was founded in 2008, and the latest investment in a neighborhood with historic roots as a hub for Black arts and culture in Chicago. Focused on transforming cultural and socio-economic inequities through the creation, teaching, and performance of dances rooted in the African Diaspora – what Red Clay Dance refers to as “artivism” – the dance company’s move into the 3,708-square-foot space is an inflection point that will enable it to grow its operating budget, expand its community engagement efforts, recruit new artists, and stage more performances.

In a Nutshell

What: New dance center for Red Clay Dance Company that will facilitate organizational growth by more than tripling the organization’s class capacity, provide the autonomy to open the space to the community when desired, and enable the dance company to livestream its programming to reach an audience beyond Chicago

Sector: Arts & Culture

Location: Chicago, IL (Woodlawn)

Size: 3,708 square feet

Cost: $376,167

IFF Support: Feasibility study completed by a team led by Kate Ansorge, Managing Director of Chicago Real Estate Solutions, and a $311,646 loan to facilitate tenant improvements to a leased space facilitated by Brett Mueller, Senior Lender – Northern Illinois and Northwest Indiana

Design: Beehyyve

Construction Management: CKL Engineers, LLC

General Contractor: DJones Construction

Formed in Brooklyn, NY, by Vershawn Sanders-Ward, the dance company relocated to Chicago in 2011 and most recently operated out of shared space in a Chicago Park District facility in Fuller Park. While the park district facility provided Red Clay Dance with the room it needed for its all-female touring company’s rehearsals and programming – which includes a youth ensemble, dance academy, and community engagement program – the burgeoning organization had limited control over when it could use the space. That greatly limited Red Clay Dance’s capacity and prompted Sanders-Ward to begin looking for solutions, which led her to IFF’s real estate team in 2019 for a feasibility study designed to identify Red Clay Dance Company’s options.

A member of IFF’s real estate team came and saw the space we were using at the time,” Sanders-Ward recallsWe talked about our vision for the future and what we wanted to have. And then at the end of the project, we were given a facility plan with three options we could pursue to have our own space.” 

The options outlined for Red Clay Dance Company included: renting a facility and building it out to the dance company’s specifications; purchasing an existing building and carrying out renovations; or building a new facility from the ground up. Red Clay Dance opted for the first choice, since it was the fastest path to a dedicated space of its own. They settled on a mixed-use building owned by Preservation of Affordable Housing located at 63rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue in a commercial corridor once known as “Black Downtown, USA.” Other tenants include a yoga studio, a UPS store, and Chicago’s oldest restaurant – Daley’s – spread across 15,000 square feet of retail space. The upper floors of the building house 55 mixed-income apartments.

“The facility was a really ideal solution that’s going to set us up for the future,” Sanders-Ward says. “Where it’s located is awesome. It’s right off of the Green Line in a visible location that will help with our branding, not far from where the Obama Center is going to be. It’s large enough for us to grow but not so large that’s it’s overwhelming. It’s a stepping-stone to the facility I dream of, and it gives us a space to be an institution in the community right now.”

The facility was a really ideal solution that’s going to set us up for the future. Where it’s located is awesome. It’s right off of the Green Line in a visible location that will help with our branding, not far from where the Obama Center is going to be. It’s large enough for us to grow but not so large that’s it’s overwhelming. It’s a stepping-stone to the facility I dream of, and it gives us a space to be an institution in the community right now.

To finance the renovation of its ground-floor commercial space, Red Clay Dance worked with IFF Senior Lender Brett Mueller, who facilitated a $311,646 tenant improvement loan. The dance company was intentional in selecting its project team for the facility buildout, prioritizing firms led by Black women, who are chronically underrepresented in the construction industry. It was a decision guided by the desire to provide visibility to locally owned firms led by women of color, but also a strategic choice to ensure that those creating Red Clay Dance Company’s space were committed to the communities the dance center will serve.

“They’re not necessarily the large construction companies that everybody knows, but they do really amazing work,” says Sanders-Ward. “Excellence is paramount to me, and they have a history of excellence in the work that they’ve done. There was care taken to create something in this neighborhood that immediately shows that we’re invested. This community deserves that.”

The completed facility features two state-of-the-art dance studios for South Side artists, administrative space, a kitchenette for staff, and livestreaming capabilities that will provide Red Clay Dance’s programming with global reach. The dance company will support artists through mutually beneficial residency and development programs, rather than a traditional hourly rental program. The approach is meant to place additional value on community engagement and build long-term relationships with artists.

In its new location, Red Clay Dance Company joins several other cultural institutions already embedded in the neighborhood, including the Johnny Twist Blues Museum, the historic Grand Ballroom, and the Ariel Joseph Art Gallery.

“Chicago is made up of neighborhoods, and each one has its own personality,” Sanders-Ward says. “Woodlawn is a historic location with a long history of supporting Black artists, and 63rd Street was a very vibrant place in the 1950s and 1960s. Cultural assets are an important part of any welcoming, growing, and thriving community, and it’s exciting that we get to be a part of this reactivated hub in the neighborhood and help with its comeback.”

Read about additional arts and culture projects IFF has supported in Illinois

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