Innovations in Alternative Art Education: An Interview with Nat Soti of Chicago Art Department

“Learning Unedited” video installation by Nat Soti (with footage shot by Nat Soti and Chuck Przybyl) from the “connect*ED” exhibition.

“Learning Unedited” video installation by Nat Soti (with footage shot by Nat Soti and Chuck Przybyl) from the “connect*ED” exhibition.

By Michelle A. M. Miller

Nat Soti, like most artists and creators, has serious multi-tasking skills. Nat is a co-founder of Chicago Art Department, principal of the design and media production company Zero One Projects, a practicing visual artist and a musician. In his capacity as a designer and media producer, Nat has primarily served nonprofits, foundations, museums and cultural institutions. Notable clients include MacArthur Foundation, Chicago History Museum, Chicago Architecture Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Princeton University.  Nat earned an MFA from the School of the Art Institute and has exhibited his visual and video art throughout Chicago and beyond.  Nat is currently Chicago Art Department’s project director for Connected Works, a project funded by the MacArthur Foundation which engages artists and creatives to create work in support of Digital Media and Learning. In addition to his professional and art experience, Nat has also taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and DePaul University. The following interview is from an email exchange that took place this past winter.

Michelle A. M. Miller: You recently traveled to Cuba, how did it go?

Nat Soti: Cuba was awesome. I went there [as part of my personal practice] to research and film with trumpet player Orbert Davis in a follow up to an ongoing project he has been doing in Cuba. Orbert is a jazz musician and is composer/conductor with the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. CJP is an orchestra that plays what he likes to call “third stream,” a hybrid of classical and jazz. In 2012 Orbert went to Havana as part of a collaboration he was doing with a dance company in Chicago. While in Havana, he visited Instituto Superior de Arte which is the Cuban equivalent of Juilliard. Orbert invited 30 of those students to Chicago last fall where they performed with the CJP orchestra at the Auditorium Theater. I filmed the week that the students spent in Chicago, so this trip was meant to be a follow up filming trip where we would connect with some of the students in Cuba.  Our trip turned into us visiting students and their families in their homes and it almost always ended up with music being performed and played in these homes during crazy jam sessions with Orbert. These are some of the most amazing and talented musicians I have seen in person. It was this combination of experiencing great music on a very grassroots level and seeing a glimpse of different home lives. There were these technically, well-trained well-educated musicians and artists; yet, it was not just technique. It was infused with a sense of vibrancy and liveliness. And I guess if I had one theme that I’ve thought about during and since the trip is this affect the commerce motive plays on things like art and culture.

MM: Do you think commerce erodes the artist's role in a larger sociocultural context?

NS: If you had to pin me down to a yes or a no, I would say “yes”.  At the 30,000 foot level I think commerce or commercialism erodes the role of the artist in the sense of what society ultimately values and how it measures things like “success” or “importance.” If how we measure the health of our nation is in terms of things like GDP growth, income, and consumer spending, which types of people become most important in meeting those needs?  That’s the business and financial people. Their expertise, their perspectives, their agendas become most influential. As a result you get a government where the top cabinet posts are filled with CEOs of large corporations, investment bankers, and people in finance.

When [former] President Obama said that what we need are more scientists and engineers in order to ensure future growth and success of our country, this meant education shifting its priorities into STEM. I can’t tell you how many high level conversations I’ve been in the room for where people were talking about the need for creativity and innovation in education, and I (a guy making a video for them) was the only artist in the room. And then we wonder why art and music programs get cut and our students become less creative, not more.

And that is what I think is important.  Art as an activator of people, of experience.
— Nat Soti

Even when artists start to get recognized for their importance—say in urban development, where it’s become fashionable to talk about the role artists play in revitalizing neighborhoods—it’s not about the art but only the use of art to make an area “cool” so that it can attract business and generate commercial activity.  Meanwhile, artists eventually get priced out of those neighborhoods, along with the communities who had always been there. Imagine some society that valued beauty and aesthetics above all else. What role would artists play in that society? On the flipside I could also argue that our commercial systems allow for the spread and distribution of art in ways that you couldn’t get in any other system. Artists who are also good business people can have their art reach people on such a scale that they do end up playing a huge role in society.

MM: Let’s talk a bit about Chicago Art Department. What's CAD’s origin story?

NS: I started CAD in 2004 with two friends and fellow artists Mike Nourse and Nathan Peck. There were a few things going on at that time that provide some good context for the origin.  One was that we were all in the beginnings of starting our art practices. Mike and I had recently gotten our MFAs at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. For me actually, the idea of an art practice was something that I hadn’t fully embraced yet as I had gone to school to study graphic design.  As part of figuring out our practices we were also just starting to teach. In many ways this is how I got into video.  I started creating video projections and doing live video mixing at various parties and events.

After participating in enough of these events, I wanted to be a part of creating one of these spaces myself. So I helped start one of these spaces along with a number of other artists. It was a raw loft space in the South Loop of Chicago that we built out ourselves to live, work and do our own events in. Mike and Nathan joined shortly after we started it.  

Chicago Art Department came out of all of this. As people starting our own artistic practice we were trying to figure out what that meant. As new teachers we were trying to figure out what it meant to teach art. As people who were part of this whole other art scene that existed outside of the formal galleries we were inspired by the energy to create our own thing, define our own art, and cultivate our own community. Chicago Art Department was our way of connecting all of this.

Nat Soti films the Documents Bureau, an art project by Georgina Valverde which CAD supported through its “Learning Is a Lifestyle” project.

Nat Soti films the Documents Bureau, an art project by Georgina Valverde which CAD supported through its “Learning Is a Lifestyle” project.

MM: What can you tell us about CAD’s first project?

NS: Our very first “program” as CAD was called “Love It or Leave It.”  It was a 15 week program that brought together some students from the classes we each were teaching at the time. We chose the theme “Love It or Leave It” to create a vehicle for dialog around what was happening with the war and the politics in our country. Over fifteen weeks everyone would experiment and learn skills to grow their own art practice whether it was learning digital imaging and video or basic drawing or painting. Then each artist would be expected to make work that addressed the theme of “Love It or Leave It”. We would all work together to create an exhibit, show or event, hosted in our loft space that would be open to the public. Our mantra was simple: Try It. Make It. Share It.

After doing two programs in our loft studio we decided to move CAD into a storefront gallery space in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. While doing CAD in our loft had its own charm and freedom, I think ultimately I wanted CAD to be in a space that was easily accessible to the public, and to provide opportunities for CAD artists to engage with a  broader public. Also the idea of taking a gallery space and putting learning and the art making process on display was very interesting to me.

MM: What about community engagement that moves beyond the art exhibition? How does CAD reach the broader public?

NS: Outside of the residency program, CAD also still does some education work.  For the last few years we have worked with a couple schools to provide workshops for their students. Right now we are working with a group of 6th-8th graders from an Elementary school across the street.  We recently completed a 3-year grant with the MacArthur Foundation that I directed where we created work in support of the Digital Media and Learning initiative. Most of the work took the form of video and design work that helped various members of the Digital Media and Learning community tell their stories and communicate some of their important ideas and initiatives. This has taken the form of a website and YouTube channel called Inpoints. Through the grant we also created the Learning Is A Lifestyle Project where we provided financial support to five artists who did work that addressed learning in interesting ways.

Walsh Elementary students taking a wood sculpture workshop by CAD resident artist Jorge Hinojosa.

Walsh Elementary students taking a wood sculpture workshop by CAD resident artist Jorge Hinojosa.

MM: Many of us can put a lot of pressure on art—myself included—and social practice is always interesting to me in that I wonder how success is measured when community-engagement is built into the project. Did the community benefit from the cultural event? Were non-artists or non-art enthusiasts engaged? Did they come back? I’m thinking about those who may have little to no art experience, those who can be difficult to reach. Do you think CAD has had a positive, durable impact beyond the one for the the resident artists and how do you measure this?  

NS: I don’t think we can think about community impact through the art and art events alone. If community benefit is something you care about, then you have to look at who you are as a community member and how you engage your community.  To me this means recognizing that artists aren’t defined by their mediums and work they produce but the interests they pursue. An artist might be a painter, but they might also be interested in different social issues, education, or activism. Maybe they are just interested in bring people together by throwing a cool party. Maybe they care about things like personal health or just being a good parent. Or maybe it’s something as utterly simple as helping someone out in whatever way you can. We want to create a space that embraces artists as full people and encourages them to express that.  And that is what I think is important.  Art as an activator of people, of experience. Often when we talk about CAD we like to say that the art isn’t the objects that people create but it is the people themselves.

I see this happen in the way we use and offer our space. Outside of art-specific events, our space has hosted everything from kids birthday parties, to a wedding, to public school fundraisers, professional development workshops, readings and screenings, a comic book convention, and recently we’ve been hosting free monthly yoga. What’s interesting is that each of these events take on a different flavor by virtue of happening in an art space. A kid’s birthday party at CAD is not like a kid’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. They also expose people to art that may not typically go to galleries and exhibitions.

A view of the “Surprise In The Process” exhibition of artists from the Center Program at Hyde Park Art Center.

A view of the “Surprise In The Process” exhibition of artists from the Center Program at Hyde Park Art Center.

Another way is how we think about our artist residencies. Among our resident artists are traditional fine artists like painters or sculptors, but we also have a resident artist who primarily runs a blog and produces events that bring artists together, we have a "resident artist" that is an organization which provides literacy programs to incarcerated youth, we have resident artists who are small businesses doing mostly commercial work. Each of these types of “resident artist” brings in different communities into the mix. And part of being a resident artist at CAD is thinking about how you can use whatever you have at CAD to benefit your own community, which is different for everyone. On a given day you could have a painter working on a new piece in their studio, while an organization is meeting about programming in a juvenile detention center, while another group is working on a video piece about a digital learning program. Think about all the different communities that are benefiting from just those three activities alone?

I think it’s about looking at how YOU benefit your community. Sometimes it is through your art, but sometimes it might not be.  Sometimes it just might be your thoughts and perspective. Sometimes it might be your space. Sometimes it might just be showing up to support in whatever way you can. And that’s just as important.
— Nat Soti

In terms of straight up art and art events, we have done exhibitions that address themes that try to engage art and non-art enthusiasts alike.  For example, a while back we did a celebration of Lincoln’s 200th birthday with a show of 200 portraits of Lincoln that we solicited from the public. With our MacArthur funded work, I produced art exhibitions thinking about how I could engage educators, policymakers, and parents on the theme of education outside of the classrooms and boardrooms.

Young person listens to the music of a rock band made up of 11 year olds at the “Treats” exhibition, a collaboration between artist Rachel Harper and 11-year old Ada Grey. Rachel’s “Seen + Heard” project was supported by CAD’s “Learning Is A Lifestyle” project.

Young person listens to the music of a rock band made up of 11 year olds at the “Treats” exhibition, a collaboration between artist Rachel Harper and 11-year old Ada Grey. Rachel’s “Seen + Heard” project was supported by CAD’s “Learning Is A Lifestyle” project.

“Benefiting your community” has to be multifaceted because communities and community needs are multifaceted. I don’t think it's about looking at how your art benefits your community.  I think it’s about looking at how YOU benefit your community. Sometimes it is through your art, but sometimes it might not be.  Sometimes it just might be your thoughts and perspective. Sometimes it might be your space. Sometimes it might just be showing up to support in whatever way you can. And that’s just as important.

MM: A MacArthur grant is an enormous accomplishment. Would you talk a little bit about your experience and what it has been like to have that level of support?

NS: In the early 2000s, around the same time CAD was starting, MacArthur started Digital Media and Learning (DML).  DML funded a whole space of research, experiments, and programming that looked at how Digital Media was impacting the way young people learned and thinking about how we might reimagine learning to better reflect learning in the digital age.  There was a recognition that young people were learning just as much (if not more) in informal, out of school spaces embodied by internet culture but also extended to similar real world spaces like community organizations, libraries, museums, etc. This work came to be defined in an approach called Connected Learning which describes learning that is driven by personal interests and passions, happens in a peer-to-peer social context, and is connected to real world projects and opportunities.

When I first encountered DML work I felt like they were articulating an educational approach that we had been practicing at CAD.  Learning in informal spaces, learning with and through peers, learning that was connected to real-world opportunities (in our case exhibitions).  Even one of the models: HOMAGO – Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out –seemed like an educational version of our Try It. Make It. Share It. So again it was interesting to me that there were education people who were picking up on many of the same societal changes that we were picking up in an art context.

The other thing that was interesting from CAD’s point of view was the grant was an opportunity to apply artistic skills, thinking, and perspective in a non-art context. This was both a great opportunity for artists who participated in any of our projects but I think it was great to have artists at the table when academics, educational folks, and policy makers were working on big questions like how do we re-imagine education.

“Over 9000” exhibition by Brandon Breaux and Dougan Khim.

“Over 9000” exhibition by Brandon Breaux and Dougan Khim.

MM: You went from a top MFA school to creating an alternative art education model. Do you feel that the traditional art education is lacking or worse-yet, no longer viable? Or is it now more a question of augmenting education through a larger network of non-traditional knowledge and experience-based providers?

NS: I wouldn’t go as far as to say that traditional art education is no longer viable, but I think there are many ways in which traditional education is not enough. This becomes compounded when you consider the cost of higher education. Don’t get me wrong, there are many things about my formal education that were truly valuable: the great faculty, my fellow classmates, the access to facilities and equipment; but when it comes to things like Chicago Art Department, Zero One Projects or the things that form the core of my practice, I feel like it was the things I did outside of school that were most important.

When you factor in the insane costs of education and think about issues of equity and access to opportunity it becomes even more important to figure out how we can make a broader learning ecosystem work.
— Nat Soti

One of the big ideas that came out of CAD’s MacArthur Foundation-funding DML program was a project called Connected Learning which recognizes the value of out-of-school/informal learning and [helps us to] think about how we connect all of these [alternative] learning spaces into a broader learning ecosystem. Over the last year I’ve been learning audio engineering and mixing almost exclusively online whether it is through youtube videos, various websites, blogs, and even podcasts. Does this mean that I would no longer need to go to school for this? Maybe, maybe not; but the fact that this is even a legitimate question is significant.

I believe there is and always will be a role for traditional education to play, but I think we need to expand our imagination of what constitutes “learning.” Learning takes place in non-traditional spaces, in online spaces, and it’s absolutely critical that we also make it really count for something.  It needs to be “accredited” in some way.  The problem with our current system is we only value things like test scores (don’t get me started) and getting your traditional degrees of high school, college, and graduate. And again when you factor in the insane costs of education and think about issues of equity and access to opportunity it becomes even more important to figure out how we can make a broader learning ecosystem work.

MM: What does the future hold for CAD?

NS: The MacArthur grant was interesting because for the last three years it pushed our organization from a pretty small-sized, small budget one into a much larger one that required things like financial audits and such. And while that grant has ended, it was a great learning experience in that it pushed us to be a much more formal organization at least on the back end. We are thinking about what it would mean to hand CAD off to the next generation. Part of this is trying to better define or more clearly articulate “what CAD does” as well as building a solid back end organization infrastructure which will be user friendly for the next person to drive. It seems crazy to say for an organization which has been around for over 10 years now but we’ve been somewhat reluctant to think about these questions because part of what has made CAD great has been that we have been small, flexible, and in many ways informal.  There has always been this thing that if CAD actually became our daytime job, it might not be what it is.  At the same time, we totally understand that is not a recipe for being around for another 10 years. For the first-time we are putting together a more formal Board of Directors. It’s been great to reach out to people with different skill sets, perspectives, and resources to help us tackle these questions.

“Learning Is A Lifestyle” neon piece by Edyta Stepien inspired by a phrase from Brother Mike Hawkins.

“Learning Is A Lifestyle” neon piece by Edyta Stepien inspired by a phrase from Brother Mike Hawkins.