By Julie Carpenter, executive director, Oak Park Art League
We see it happening from the gallery office window. Folks strolling by our quaint, gabled building at 720 Chicago Ave. pause briefly to peer into our garden courtyard, while pondering if further exploration is allowed. A quick glance at our low-slung Oak Park Art League sign offers no clues—“League” is perhaps too ambiguous to explain the decades (nearly ten) that this organization has served our community as a resource for artists and center for art education.
As one of Oak Park’s first cultural institutions, the Oak Park Art League was founded by artist Carl Krafft, who, in 1921, gathered artists and art patrons in his home on Harvey Avenue to form an organization for promoting art appreciation. Originally named the Austin, Oak Park and River Forest Art League, meetings were frequent and offered artist demonstrations and lectures on art-related topics. Committees were established for art exhibitions, civic work and social activities to accommodate a community that was rapidly becoming a destination for culture. The first important exhibition of painting and sculpture, held at Grace Episcopal Church in 1925, drew hundreds of visitors from across the Chicagoland area.
Throughout the years, Art League programming has echoed the interests and varying needs of our community. Civic work in the early 1930s included a circulating exhibit of artwork for local public schools. As a place for social engagement before the days of television, the Art League hosted teas, dinners, and garden parties—art always a main topic of discussion.
There was much to talk about too, with European avant garde artists—Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse and others—entering the dialogue and visual vocabulary of artists, collectors and museums in the early twentieth century. Post-war art movements and a multitude of “isms,” such as Dadaism, surrealism, and abstract expressionism, provoked controversy, challenging the conventions and sensibilities of an Art League that celebrated technique and process through representational art—landscape painting, figure drawing, and portraiture. The Oak Park Art League holds a permanent collection of more than fifty works that document these well-honed traditions and developing strands. Many are by artists noteworthy for their contributions to the history of American Art.
The Art League’s educational legacy is built upon a foundation of professional artists mentoring generations of emerging artists. Technique and process are still emphasized in the art classes we offer in a variety of mediums to people of all ages and skill levels. Walking distance from Oak Park-River Forest High School, the Art League is an especially good resource for students looking to develop portfolios for application to college fine arts programs. A solid portfolio often requires strong drawing work that includes figure drawing, and the Art League offers workshop intensives to help students advance these skills. Figure drawing is a time-honored tradition and drop-in sessions held three times a week in the Art League studio continue to provide opportunity for artists to draw, paint or sculpt from a live model.
The Art League’s Carriage House Gallery provides space for community artists to publicly display their work, the intimate salon setting a backdrop for the tens of thousands works that have lined the walls and filled pedestals in monthly exhibitions. Just as mentoring occurs in the Art League’s studio, gallery exhibitions are a natural forum for networking between both experienced and emerging artists. Exhibits are typically judged; the Art League benefits from its proximity to universities and museums, whose staff of art educators and curators are credentialed resources for providing critical feedback to exhibiting artists. Many of these professionals live locally and when asked to share time as a judge or guest lecturer, generously pay it forward to their neighborhood non-profit arts organization and a culturally engaged community.
Opening receptions for exhibitions are held on second Fridays and the gallery is a vibrant social meeting place where artists, friends, family and the broader community gather to celebrate the talent of local artists. Themed exhibitions invite a diversity of styles and variety of mediums—drawing, painting, photography, fiber art and sculpture—making the gallery a local brick-and-mortar resource for purchasing quality original artwork.
The Art League is also focusing on new ways to accommodate the evolving needs of our Village, which in the last century has developed into a community of multiple perspectives, varying cultural interests, and important social concerns. Culture and the visual arts have the power to raise awareness and inspire change, and the Art League looks to collaborate with Oak Park’s social service agencies to give voice to local causes through the universal language of art. Examples of such partnerships include our recent October exhibition “Stone Soup,” the theme borrowed from a well-known folktale to present an exhibit that featured food as subject matter and a canned soup drive to benefit the OPRF Food Pantry. In February, the Art League will partner with One Earth Film Festival with the exhibit “Discarded to Regarded,” as both organizations join forces and visual mediums to elevate awareness about environmental concerns.
As the Oak Park Art League refines mission goals for the start of its second century in 2021, we aim to make art accessible while raising critical consciousness. Community building through partnerships with other cultural organizations is another important aspect of our mission planning, and this summer, the Art League gallery will serve as a host site for the International Hemingway Conference being sponsored by the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park. Events will include the Art League’s July exhibition, “Moveable Feast,” featuring artwork inspired by the life and times of Ernest Hemingway, plus a special presentation of artwork by Grace Hall Hemingway—mother of the famous author and a onetime Artist Member and Board Director at the Oak Park Art League.
History and logistics connect the Art League to the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio and Ernest Hemingway’s Birth Home. Together these three organizations form a contextual dialogue about Oak Park’s early twentieth century cultural roots and the art, architecture, and literary influences that have helped make Oak Park a destination for tourism today.
The Oak Park Art League seeks to capture a larger piece of this tourism, which brings us back to the mysteries of the word “League” and our barely-visible sign, both ineffective in conveying our rich history and mission that ensures access to the arts. As the Art League fine-tunes organizational goals for the future, perhaps a name change and new sign are in order. A century of cultural traditions, permanent collection and a landmark 1902 E.E. Roberts building lends to one possibility: Oak Park Art League & Museum. Come visit our historic gallery and education center and tell us what you think…if you can find us, of course!
Photos: Courtesy of the Oak Park Art League