It’s 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning and Theo Epstein is sitting at a paint-stained table at the South Chicago Art Center, drawing a dolphin. It’s at the request of one of the young students from the program, which runs out of a small storefront on the far Southeast side. The student looks critically at Epstein’s drawing, and the Chicago Cubs President of Baseball Operations chuckles. “I think I need to sign up for a drawing class,” he says.
Epstein is visiting the nonprofit arts program, along with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, to announce that the center is the recipient of a substantial donation. And though the members of Pearl Jam — lead singer Eddie Vedder, guitarist Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament, guitarist Stone Gossard and drummer Matt Cameron — aren’t present on this sunny morning, they’re at the heart of this whole operation. Since the band was formed in 1990, philanthropy has been as essential to its approach as Vedder’s raspy vocals. Early on, the band played benefit concerts, recorded benefit albums and made sporadic donations to charity, but in 2006, members upped the ante: Through their Vitalogy Foundation, Pearl Jam has donated $2 from every concert ticket sold to a nonprofit organization in the area of arts, education, the environment, community health and social justice.
As fans have been rocking out to “Alive” or “Yellow Ledbetter,” the band has quietly raised more than $15 million since its inception — and $2 million alone from the $2-per-ticket initiative — for a range of organizations around the world. When it comes to the funds, the beneficiaries vary: Sometimes, each band member gives a chunk individually, sometimes they donate collectively and sometimes — as in Chicago’s case — they give the money to a nonprofit organization located in the city where they just performed.
But for the upcoming sold-out Chicago show, happening July 19 at Wrigley Field, the band tweaked their standard approach. Because they were familiar with Chicago’s vibrant art scene, instead of simply selecting a local organization, the band reached out to Mayor Rahm Emanuel for a list of local arts nonprofits that were doing strong, effective work, but were in need of additional funds. The mayor and his team turned over a list, and Pearl Jam and its crew researched each one before settling upon two potential beneficiaries: Marwen and the South Chicago Art Center. The concert, which sold out in 20 minutes and has a 40,000-person capacity, is poised to raise $80,000 for the two organizations, both of which seek to improve the lives of underserved Chicago youth through art. It’s a cause that holds extra significance for the band, as Vedder is an Evanston native (and avid Cubs fan).
“We wanted to do something that would help provide Chicago’s youth access to arts education,” says Gossard. “All of us in the band found our way in the world through art and music; it opened our eyes and gave us a kind of language to better understand ourselves and the world. These two organizations are doing amazing work with visual arts and the city’s young people.”
“All of us in the band found our way in the world through art and music; it opened our eyes and gave us a kind of language to better understand ourselves.”
— Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam
According to Emanuel, the band chose two charities that span the Chicago arts nonprofit spectrum. “They serve communities and kids that need to be served,” he says of both organizations, adding that South Chicago Art Center is focused on one neighborhood while Marwen serves students citywide.
Pearl Jam’s philanthropic spirit has inspired other local heavy hitters to come along for the ride. The Chicago Cubs Charities and Epstein’s own nonprofit, Foundation to be Named Later, are kicking in $10,000 and $15,000, respectively, for each charity, bringing the grand total for both Marwen and the South Chicago Art Center to $65,000. (Additionally, fan-run foundation Wishlist is raising money for the organizations, while promoter Live Nation is donating $5,000 to support research for Epidermolysis Bullosa through Healeb.org, a cause dear to Vedder and his wife.)
“Every kid is just looking for something to connect with. But the important thing is to have an awareness that nonprofits help kids who are overlooked.”
— Theo Epstein
“We found out about [the band’s donation] because our ballpark is hosting the concert, and we thought it would be appropriate to get involved. I’ve been lucky enough to get to know these guys over the years, and they’re incredible people,” says Epstein. “If you talk to them, they’ll say they never would have gotten where they are with out access to arts programs. Every kid is just looking for something to connect with. But the important thing is to have an awareness that nonprofits help kids who are overlooked. Whether it’s arts or summer camps or sports, you just have to get kids off the streets and help them find their passion.”
In their 20-year history, Pearl Jam has rarely gone public about its philanthropic donations. But the band feels that when the publicity benefits arts nonprofits — and inspires fans to give as well — then it’s worthwhile. Read below to find out how Marwen and South Chicago Art Center captured the hearts of a legendary rock band.
South Chicago Art Center
As a probation officer in juvenile court, Sarah Ward pioneered the country’s first art therapy program for kids on probation — but she knew she could make a bigger difference. “I felt like I was working with kids who needed someone, but they had sisters or brothers at home that really needed someone to work with them. Something was missing,” she says. “I wanted to create an open center where kids could enjoy themselves and either do art or just be respected.” So in 2001, Ward, a visual artist, opened the South Chicago Art Center in a small storefront on the far Southeast side.
Back then, she had only a smattering of supplies and 18 participants. But now, the center serves thousands of kids, who can drop in for free and learn a wide range of visual arts, from painting to mosaic to sculpture. Ward also has a community garden that encompasses four city lots, where students plant, harvest and learn to cook their bounty, and garner art inspiration.
The Center’s neighborhood is extremely contentious. “There are 12 active gangs in a 10-by-10 block area, so it’s really hard for kids to get to our space,” says Ward. “They literally have to risk their lives.” To combat this, SCAC and a team of teachers hold programs in 11 schools. In total, Ward and her team are affecting more than 3,000 low-income students who have limited access to creative outlets and positive role models. With the donation from Pearl Jam, the Cubs and Theo Epstein, she hopes to secure a larger space. “The storefront is home, but it’s scrappy. The kids deserve a bigger space.”
During her tenure, Ward has caught the attention of the neighborhood’s students and the city of Chicago. “I’ve known about her work for awhile, and she won’t take no for an answer,” says Emanuel. “She’s a force of nature.”
Learn more and donate to the South Chicago Art Center at Happyartcenter.org.
This year, Marwen director Antonia Contro celebrates a milestone: 20 years with the organization. In fact, she’s been with the arts nonprofit since the start. “I’m sheepishly admitting it,” she laughs. “But I authored the mission for the organization as a young artist in arts education and there were literally two students that came. Now, it’s at this remarkable place where I’m meeting alums that are across the city working in arts-related fields. It’s a gratifying thing.”
Based in River North, Marwen welcomes students in grades 6-12 from across the city for after-school and weekend studio classes in everything from painting to drawing to animation, many taught by working artists such as fashion designer Elise Bergman and visual artist Regin Igloria. Offerings appeal to every style of artist; while there’s a burgeoning digital media program, there’s also still an analog black and white photography program. “We think it’s valuable in teaching core principles,” says Contro.
Since its inception, Marwen has made a mark on the city. “I’ve known Marwen for years, it’s a fabulous organization,” says Emanuel. “They serve citywide, rather than a particular community.” Currently Marwen offers more than 100 courses to nearly 800 students from 54 of the city’s 57 ZIP codes — and then there’s their renowned college planning and career development program, which offers portfolio classes, ACT coaching, college field trips and guidance for students and families. And it’s paid off: Last year, 91 percent of Marwen seniors were accepted to college. “We really stand behind the impact and value of arts immersion,” says Contro.
Learn more and donate to Marwen at Marwen.org.
Story by Molly Each