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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

Currency Exchange Cafe Reopens Next Week, Providing A Platform For Artists And Chefs Of Color Hit Hard By Pandemic

With performances, artist residencies and a pop-up record store, the "Retreat" activation at the Washington Park cafe will "support artists who have lost space," one leader said.

Chantala Kommanivanh pours a drink at the Currency Exchange Café, 305 E. Garfield Blvd.
Chris Strong
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WASHINGTON PARK — A new, yearlong program will offer live music and food from local chefs while providing a much-needed platform for Chicago’s creatives of color at the Currency Exchange Cafe.

“Retreat,” an extension of Rebuild Foundation’s Black Artists’ Retreat, will “activate” the cafe at 305 E. Garfield Blvd. when it reopens Oct. 9.

Performances, artist residencies and a pop-up record store featuring local musicians’ projects are among the highlights.

“The idea is to support artists who have lost space; who are innovative and imaginative, but feel like they don’t have the support or resources that they need,” programming manager Barédu Ahmed said. “It’s an open house for all.”

The artist-led Retreat is the Currency Exchange Cafe’s first offering since its closure in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While Rebuild has continued with virtual programming and the occasional in-person event through the pandemic, its cafe has been shuttered completely.

The closures of the cafe and of other creative spaces across the city have negatively impacted artists. Musicians have been especially hard hit, as they’ve been “locked out of spaces to perform, which is their lifeline,” Ahmed said.

Though artists of all media are invited to use the space, Retreat will focus on musicians, influenced in part by Ahmed’s career as a performing artist. Ahmed and visual artist Chantala Kommanivanh will oversee the programming.

Credit: Chris Strong
Programming director Barédu Ahmed.

Performers can record music, host small live performances and work with “an intentionally intimate group of people right in their own community” through Retreat, Rebuild founder Theaster Gates said in a statement.

“Given the lack of venues and lack of investment in Black cultural venues in our city, we want to demonstrate how our communities are enriched with the presence of artists,” Gates said.

A on-site commercial kitchen will allow emerging chefs, food trucks and other culinary artists to serve food to Retreat patrons. The Currency Exchange Cafe previously hosted a pop-up Peach’s Restaurant location.

The record shop will be curated by Kommanivanh and allow local musicians to sell their vinyl offerings on consignment.

Upon reopening, the cafe itself will also offer coffee, tea, cocktails, light refreshments and Wi-Fi access. If coronavirus restrictions are further eased, small meeting spaces for creatives will also be offered, according to Gates’ chief of staff Mallory McClaire.

Social distancing and masks are required, the space’s capacity will be limited and pre-registration will be required for events and performances.

The organizers are preparing a reservation portal for artists interested in performing, holding residencies at the space or using the commercial kitchen. Until that’s unveiled, creatives can reach out to Ahmed at

Credit: Chris Strong
The exterior of the Currency Exchange Cafe.

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