The Historic Artists and Models Ball at the SSCAC

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Souvenir Book, 1939 Artists and Models Ball, Archives of the South Side Community Art Center, Chicago, Illinois.

The annual tradition of the South Side Community Art Center’s Artists and Models Ball, a night of revelry, theater and music, began as part of the Center’s fundraising efforts in 1939. The Sponsors Committee wanted to create community-wide support for the establishment of the Center and raise funds for the purchase of an old mansion on South Michigan Avenue that would become the Center’s permanent home.

Marva Louis, the glamorous jazz singer and wife of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, helped make the first Ball a success by promoting the event widely.[1] Tickets sold for the ball brought in over a thousand dollars, an impressive feat during the Depression. The planners of the Ball promised a gay affair with “entertainment that will be entirely different from any other show attempted by a charitable organization.”[2] The floor show involved 150 performers, including “fifty pretty girls” dressed as artists’ models and Nubian beauties. Celebrated stage performers, such as Alberta Hunter, a cast member of the Broadway show, “Mamba’s Daughters” gained attention for the event in the local press.[3]

Lift Every Voice

Augusta Savage, Lift Every Voice and Sing, 1939.

However, the event’s glamour did not outshine the Sponsors Committee’s goal for the Center overall: “to develop an art consciousness that would provoke a desire to have in this community a cultural art center for the youth and older people with aptitude and interest in an artistic direction.”[4] In addition to the parades of costumed models, the program connected the artistic achievements of prominent African American artists and cultural figures to the potential for an art center in Chicago. The program opened with a tribute to Augusta Savage with a reproduction of her sculpture “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” originally exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Savage, the head of the Harlem Art Center, sent a telegram that was read on the evening of the Ball: “Deeply appreciate your beautiful gesture this evening … Accept my heartiest congratulations upon this step you have taken toward building an art center in Chicago.”[5]

The night’s entertainment showcased the talents of Chicago artists as well. Guests enjoyed theatrical vignettes from the Negro People’s Theater and the premier of William McBride’s “Rembrandt’s Lecture,” a swing novelty sung by Alden Lawson.[6] Charles White exhibited panels of his mural, “Five Great American Negroes,” depicting figures that were chosen to represent the creativity and cultural contributions of important African American figures. The stage designs, coordinated by Margaret Goss (later Margaret Burroughs), created a dazzling scene from ancient Egypt. For the grand finale of the program, guests were invited to join the entire cast for a parade before the judges of the costume contest.  The winner, Marva Trotter Barrows, was awarded a water color painting by Julio de Diego for her Marie Antoinette costume.[7]

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The first Artists and Models Ball, Chicago Defender, November 4, 1939.

The first Artists and Models Ball attracted so much attention that the Sponsors Committee built on its momentum of the event with the Center’s first membership drive. These early fundraising efforts ensured that, while the Center was established with the assistance of the federal government, it would belong to and be the responsibility of the community.[8]

To build on their success, the Center to aimed to match the glamour and spectacle each following year. The organizers sought “to make the ball a full scale production that would provide a workshop for blending the arts.”[9] Each event required a team of artists that contributed their talents to the design and production of imaginative themes, costumes, music, and performances. Drawings for El Roi Parker’s and Bobbe Cotton’s costume designs for the 1946 ball are part of the Center’s collection, evidence of the elaborate planning and creativity dedicated to each aspect of the event.


El Roi Parker, Untitled, 1946, Watercolor, ink, and glitter on board. South Side Community Art Center Collection, SSCAC-248.

The 1946 ball featured the talents of Carmencita Romero, “whose beautiful body,” according to the Defender, “was fortunately not too concealed, nor untastefully exposed.”[10] The risqué character of the annual Ball, offering a glimpse of an unrestrained artistic Bohemia (whether such a thing truly existed in Bronzeville or not), contributed to its notoriety and appeal. But the skilled production of the Artists and Models Ball, the most well-attended and successful annual event of the Center’s early years, reflects the hard work and talents of a diverse group of artists, civic and business leaders dedicated to ensure that the Center remained at the cutting edge of Chicago’s artistic and cultural scene.

[1] Darlene Clark Hine and John McCluskey, eds., The Chicago Black Renaissance (University of Illinois, 2012), 154.

[2] Sponsor’s Committee Meeting Notes, September 25, 1939, Archives of the SSCAC, Part I, Box 1 (1938-1945), Folder 3, Chicago, Illinois.

[3] Sponsor’s Committee Meeting Notes, October 8, 1939, Archives of the SSCAC, Part I, Box 1 (1938-1945), Folder 3; “Miss Hunter Highly Entertained,” Chicago Defender, October 28, 1939, 18.

[4] Golden B. Darby, Chairman of the Sponsors’ Committee, Letter to Committee Member, May 18, 1939, Archives of the SSCAC, Part I, Box 1 (1938-1945), Folder 1, Chicago, Illinois.

[5] Elizabeth Galbreath, “Typovision,” Chicago Defender, November 4, 1939, 16.

[6] “McBride’s Swing Tune Score Hit,” Chicago Defender, November 4, 1939, 20; “Artists and Models Ball Draws Capacity Crowd,” Chicago Defender, November 4, 1939, 16.

[7] “Artists and Models Ball Draws Capacity Crowd,” Chicago Defender, November 4, 1939, 16.

[8] Darby, Chairman of the Sponsors’ Committee.

[9] “Glamour Rules Arts Ball: Affair is Mainstay of Southside Center,” The Chicago Defender, November 29, 1947, p. 11.

[10] “Pretty Girls, Gay Costumes, Torrid Dancing Feature Artists and Models Ball,” The Chicago Defender, December 7, 1946, p. 17.

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