“Where Elgin Creates:” The uplifting aura of Side Street Studio Arts

“Art attaches us as individuals to the world around us in a way that other things don’t.”


Matt Brady

Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Side Street Studio Arts Tanner Melvin sits in front of an art piece and stares off into the distance at Side Street Studio Arts on May 9, 2023.

Matt Brady, Photo Editor

Sitting parallel to South Spring Street in Downtown Elgin and next to Rediscover Records sits Side Street Studio Arts, an art organization that strives to be a safe haven for community members and aspiring artists alike.

Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Side Street Studio Arts Tanner Melvin began his art journey through the colorful mind of his mother, a painter who taught him art fundamentals.

Further in life after releasing that the career path he was studying wasn’t satisfying him, he switched his major to theatre, which he would pursue for about four years as he attended Western Illinois University. 

“That’s really what propelled me into the world of theatre, performance and production,” Melvin said.

The conception of Side Street Studio Arts first came about 20 years ago from the minds of Melvin and co-founder Erin Rehberg, who were a couple at the time.

Melvin stated that he noticed a lack of art institutions in the Elgin area, whether from galleries and supply stores to concert halls and performance spaces. 

Fast forward almost a decade later and in 2012, Melvin and Rehberg, who had just gotten back together, finally pushed the idea into reality.

“We wanted to do something different,” Melvin reflected. “Elgin was a place that we wanted to stay and we were like, ‘Okay, what does it need? What can we do?”

After taking numerous walks around the downtown Elgin area, the couple set their eyes on a building that would eventually become the home of Side Street Studio Arts. 

“[Rehberg] was like, ‘There’s this space, let’s go take a look,’” Melvin said. “We walked in and we met our [now] ex-landlord; he was open, let us walk around, let us talk to him and think of things. We immediately thought, ‘This is our main gallery.’”

Their landlord was flexible with rent and the couple decided to try and run the institution for a year, using their own funding, and see where it goes. 

“Not even that, we didn’t even really have enough money to do it a for a year, but we thought we could do it for a year,” Melvin admitted with a laugh. 

After signing the lease on Jan. 15, 2013, the couple only had 6 weeks to get the operation up and running. 

Following the next couple of years, the couple was able to acquire more real estate to bring the Side Street Studio Arts further into the public eye, making it an unmissable artistic institution. 

The couple utilized these new spaces, creating new homes for galleries, workshops, educational rooms, performance areas and the organization’s storefront known as MADE, which specializes in showcasing and selling artwork of any medium.

Director of Special Projects Nick Mataragas talked about the many opportunities that Side Street Studio Arts provides for artists and community members.

According to Mataragas and through numerous partnerships and grants that Side Street Studio Arts has secured, free youth programs are provided to young artists, along with summer art camps, weekly programs throughout the school year and numerous lab spaces including screenprinting, photography/darkroom, and sculpture and painting areas are available for older adolescences and adults alike. 

“[SSSA] is a community builder,” Mataragas said. “It’s about elevating artists and letting them know there’s a space for them, but also that other people are around working in the same fields…. We really try to be that center point where people start to build, collaborate and grow in Elgin.”

Along with the help of the Reva and David Logan Foundation, a Chicago-based family foundation that supports grants to support social justice, the arts and journalists, Side Street Studio Arts was able to close on another building in the Downtown Elgin area, which will become the organization’s permanent home. 

“We’re at the beginning of a capital campaign in fund raising,” Melvin said. “We’re looking to fund raise upwards of $5 million for build-out and for small first-level programming to get up and running for that property and then we’ll need a lot more to keep it running and more additions, but that’s where we are right now.”

With just a little bit of time left in their lease, Melvin and Rehberg are eagerly looking forward to moving their operation over to a new, permanent and aspiring artistic haven. 

The meaning of Side Street Studio Arts has changed over the years for Melvin, stating that it was created out of the need for a space for artists, but now he sees it as an organization that is based in the mental health and well-being of artistic minds, workers, volunteers and the community. 

“The aura of [SSSA] is love,” Melvin said. “That’s something that I personally have dealings with on a day-to-day basis, whether it be self-love and also with loving people, because life can beat you down sometimes and it’s difficult for some people to follow that journey of trying to love. I really think that’s what we try to create… If we can create love out of an experience, I think that’s a really great thing.”