Letter from our Outgoing Executive Director, James Pepper Kelly

LATITUDE, then and now. Picture on the right courtesy of Hedrich Blessing Photographers.

LATITUDE, then and now. Picture on the right courtesy of Hedrich Blessing Photographers.

Back in 2012, when LATITUDE first announced itself, I was working as Managing Director of Filter Photo, maintaining my own small photo business, and putting together occasional writing on Chicago’s art scene. Like so many, I’d been confronted with problems of how to make work affordably and how to have meaningful interactions within the arts community myself. The premise of LATITUDE—a public lab that also offered thoughtful programming—seemed both brilliant and obvious. I did what I could to support the nascent org: met the people involved, joined the email list, donated and began regularly attending events. Within just a couple of months LATITUDE seemed like it had always been here, a permanent facet of Chicago’s cultural landscape. 

In 2013 my relationship to LATITUDE changed abruptly when the Board of Directors asked me to become Executive Director. I was thrilled, and honored, and also (frankly) a little bit terrified. In the end I said yes because, even if I couldn’t know what I was getting myself into, I did know that LATITUDE was something I emphatically believed in. I knew that I wanted it to succeed. I wanted to be part of that.

Then time sped up and suddenly here we are, three years later! There are too many milestones to think back on now, but some of the more notable ones are worth recalling. After working through a mountain of federal, state, and local government paperwork, we secured all requisite approvals and earned full 501(c)(3) status. The Foundation for Contemporary Arts awarded us our first grant, which, proudly, would become our first of many. We unboxed our first major new equipment lab purchase, the NEC monitors that users still edit on today. Donations of equipment, ink, and money accelerated. Our programming grew exponentially, in particular our residency program, which we opened up to an application process and expanded to include a far more diverse group of residents. Our Lab Assistant program was formalized and expanded, and we added on the Fellowship Program for arts admin training and strategy. Our memberships were restructured for simplicity and sustainability, our website was redone for clarity and communication, and in 2014, with just a few months left on our non-renewable lease, we moved to a beautiful new location thanks to the support of an angel donor and a crew of generous volunteers. Much of this wouldn’t have been possible without the extraordinary efforts of so many, in particular our former Lab Coordinator, Thomson Dryjanski.

Special thanks also go to our current Lab Coordinator, Xander Fischer, and Jessica Pierotti, who takes on the title of Executive Director herself here in 2017. LATITUDE today is stronger and more efficient than it has ever been, and that’s in part because Jessica spent much of 2016 as Deputy Director. I step down with full confidence in her ability to guide, grow, and improve the organization for years to come. As a ongoing member of LATITUDE’s Board of Directors, I look forward to supporting her directorial vision however best I can. 

I’ll be putting the rest of my time towards completing my graduate thesis for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Visual & Critical Studies program. One thing (of many!) that I’ve learned at LATITUDE is something I’m studying for that thesis: how the utopian potential of person-to-person interactions, especially in specific spaces, is worth paying close attention to. I’m proud to think that what drives LATITUDE is a commitment to that same person-to-person potential. 

On a final note: in May of 2017 we’ll achieve one more milestone, our five year anniversary. Thanks to everyone who has helped shape our story so far, including all the lab users, volunteers, Lab Assistants, Fellows, residents, and donors. LATITUDE has been formed by your collective involvement; you are the reason it is so amazing today. Thank you for that. I hope to see you at our annual birthday party/fundraiser in May, and to raise a glass to LATITUDE’s continued sustainability, effectiveness, and success. 


James Pepper Kelly


Colleen Keihm