Gazette Article by: Isabel Halm
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 2005
Everything has its story. Hardly a moment goes by in our lives when we are not listening to, telling or creating a story. One of the most amazing things about stories is that they teach us something about ourselves and the world in which we live. Stories help us discover our past, survive and gain perspective. They help us pass down significant facts to future generations so that we can preserve our cultural identity. Now in its 81st year, the North Shore Art League has a great story.
The North Shore Art League (NSAL) was founded in 1924 by accomplished artisans and community leaders from the North Shore and Chicagoland area. Famous artists such as Franz Schulze and LeRoy Neiman visited its studio and print space in Winnetka. NSAL collaborated with renowned academic institutions such as The Art Institute of Chicago. It hosted a series of lectures and classes, all of which were known for their high caliber. In the first half of the 20 th century, the League was indeed one of the most prestigious art clubs in Illinois if not in the nation.
Times changed. Starting in the 1960s, Illinois artists clamored for resources and opportunities. To meet this demand the League started to move from being an arts society to being a more contemporary organizational model of the arts center— one that hosted public exhibits for both amateur and professional artists. With the advent of the “exhibition era” of the League, the New Horizons Show was formed. This jurored exhibit became known as a show in which many Illinois artisans could get their first big break. NSAL didn’t stop at New Horizons. The NSAL Annual Craft Festival and the Fine Art Festivals continued as they had historically, but they were made bigger and better with far-reaching publicity, a more diverse group of artists and a subsequent record public attendance.
Despite the League’s accomplishments, the 1990s were a very challenging decade. While NSAL had reached a golden age of exhibits, it had lost sight of the value of its classes, scholarships and special guest lectures—all important resources for artists. The studio, occupied by NSAL since its inception, was vacant much of the time. Revenue and membership numbers declined, and with them went the League’s spirit of optimism for a bright future.
Perhaps the most tragic effect of the League’s failing health was the loss of its story and legacy in the arts. Although the League had seen so much history, there was little organized and properly archived material on NSAL’s existence. Many people had clever anecdotes about NSAL, referring to it as a “home away from home”—but all these memories were undocumented and unrecorded. With the potential dissolution of the League, the people who held its institutional memory were in danger of disappearing as well, taking the League’s story with them.
In 2000, a passionate group of board members, community volunteers and students formed a plan to save the League, making it possible for the organization to survive. The League’s legacy played a huge part in rallying community support. A valuable lesson was learned: your story is everything. Your story makes an immeasurable difference in the continuum of your organization.
Currently, the League is recording its history in documentary format. This will allow the precious memories of NSAL to be revealed to the public and insure that the story of the League lives on. The NSAL documentary is part of the League’s media arts program, partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. Local teens and adults filmed the 30-minute history alongside local producer/director Mark Siska in an “ Introduction to Documentary Filmmaking” class that began at NSAL in late January 2005. A community debut of the show is scheduled for fall 2005, and it is the hope of the League that its story will inspire future generations of supporters.