In 1991, Chicago city administrators were faced with rising youth unemployment levels and inadequate funding for jobs-training programs. Youth unemployment rates were approaching 17.5 percent nationwide, but federal jobs-training funding limited the range and scope of sponsored programs: federal funds could not be used for teachers, supplies, students whose family income was above a specified level. When Mayor Richard Daley challenged local officials to find a use for a vacant block in Chicago's downtown area, local officials saw an opportunity to establish a program that would not only provide income-blind jobs training, but also increase exposure to the arts in a city whose schools were systematically reducing arts funding.
Although artistic education is often perceived to be of little use in the general job market, Chicago city officials recognized a link between creativity and job skills and created an appealing arts program that focused on the acquisition of substantive job skills. The vacant block was re-envisioned as "Block 37," a multimedia art studio and gallery that offers paid apprenticeships to youngsters from all over the City. These apprentices, aged 14 to 21, are given the opportunity to work with and learn from professional artists and to produce works for display and sale throughout the City.
Administrators designed the program first and foremost as a way to develop job skills and work habits. Participants, apprentices and artists are selected through a rigorous application process and held to strict work schedules. All Gallery 37 programs are designed to ensure the integration of skills identified by the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) at the U.S. Department of Labor, and focus on cognitive, team-work, and general jobs skills. Furthermore, program administrators have the support of city agencies, private corporations, and federal funding, forming a dense network of partnerships that has allowed them to recruit young Chicagoans of varying economic backgrounds. As a result, participants come from and share in a range of diverse traditions and cultural experiences, something that would have been impossible had the City relied exclusively on federal funding
Since its inception, Gallery 37 has become one of the most visible and successful youth programs in Chicago. Work by Gallery 37 artists can be seen throughout the City, from park benches to large-scale public murals. Community and financial support for the program has grown steadily since 1991: yearly participation has grown tenfold and funding has increased by 760 percent. From 1991 to 1996, more than 6,000 students participated in the program, and more than 80 corporations donated financial and in-kind resources. By 1996, the City was able to add satellite neighborhood galleries and a year-round schools-based program, allowing Gallery 37 to accommodate nearly 2,000 youths and 400 professional and emerging artists each year. The program's success also led to its replication in cities throughout the U.S. These programs conducted on downtown blocks, in community centers, and at universities employ over 2,100 youth and close to 250 professional artists across the country.