National Museum of Mexican Art begins converting old firehouse into youth arts center

The National Museum of Mexican Art went to work Friday on a project to turn a former Little Village firehouse into a center for arts and culture programming for teens and young adults.

The $2 million project will transform the former firehouse into a two-story space that will be used for the Yollocalli Arts Reach program, which had been housed at the museum in Pilsen since the program was launched more than a quarter of a century ago.

The Yollocalli art center is expected to open in the repurposed building at 2358 S. Whipple St. in the summer of 2025.

“It’s going to provide a space for people to come together and to be able to create something beautiful within a beautiful space,” said Kaelyn Andrade.

Andrade, 25, who works at the National Museum of Mexican Art, said it is important to have safe spaces for young people away from home, school or work.

The Yollocalli Arts Reach program began in 1997 and has been housed at the museum at 1852 W. 19th St. The program offers free arts and culture programming ranging from fine arts to digital media.

Matthew Barney, pastor of New Life Community Church, said the Yollocalli center is needed in the Little Village community.

“We have lost too many young people to our great city and what young people need is hope. They need hope, community, and safe spaces. Someone to walk with them through their journey,” he said.

Yollocalli means “House of the Heart” in the indigenous Mexican language Nahuatl, WBEZ has reported. The firehouse itself dates to 1907.

Yollocalli has also run a satellite art studio at Barrett Park in Pilsen since 2011 and moved its headquarters to the Little Village Boys and Girls Club in 2013.

Once the Little Village firehouse project is complete, the first floor will be for hosting community events while the second will be for classes held by the arts program.

A rendering of he National Museum of Mexican Art’s future Yollocalli arts center is projected on the wall of the fire station in Little Village during a groundbreaking ceremony on Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Emmanuel Ramirez, 21, looks forward to his students and other young people in the community experiencing Yollocalli’s programming.

Once an intern and now an arts teacher for Yollocalli, he can attest to the value of its mission.

“I know Yollocalli has forever and will forever keep community at the core of its values. It’s going to be a space for all the community to come co-work, have meetings, have events, and just a space for good,” Ramirez told Sun-Times.

Emmanuel Ramirez, a former intern at Yollocalli Arts Reach, stands outside the National Museum of Mexican Art’s future Yollocalli arts center on Friday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Fabiola Rivera, an artist from Mexico City now living in Little Village, said centers such as Yollocalli can teach youth the skills needed to become professional artists.

“These spaces are important for young people because they provide the materials and teachers to learn from aside from school system,” Rivera said. “Kids and young people can learn that they can be professional without going to school. They can keep doing their passions.”

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