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Art vs. Mediocrity

Tales of ArtWalkRavenswood: Rocking the Boat

An Update

The FIRST Ravenswood Art Walk -- in 1987
The FIRST Ravenswood Art Walk -- in 1987

Once upon a time, before the official arts tour now known as “Ravenswood Art Walk” began, artists managed their own open studio events and created group shows in designated buildings and shared spaces in the Ravenswood and Addison Industrial Corridors. As early as 1987 there was a self-organized tour of existing art studios complete with a xeroxed map of venues (The Cornelia Art Center and F.O.T.A. were a big part of that effort). Until at least 1998, The Jane Addams Resource Corporation hosted a “Tour of Industry” highlighting its programs and members with a walking tour and guide-book that included the history of some of the buildings and businesses in Ravenswood. JARC later become (briefly) the original administrative partner of the small volunteer arts tour group which coalesced in 2001. The first “Tour of Arts and Industry” was born.

ArtWalkRavenswood is now calling their signature event, the Ravenswood Art Walk and their new abbreviated name is “RAW”. Re-branding is always a bit dodgy and losing the partnership of industry in the process is unfortunate. Industry is a vital facet of why the artists located in Ravenswood were able to maintain studios over the past 20 years. The parallel importance of industrial and cultural production is being erased as manufacturing declines, buildings are sold and the white collar service industry takes over. If this is indeed progress than the next, inevitable step are loft condos with plenty or first floor retail and parking. The effect of recent changes are also felt in the annual arts tour: the unique opportunity to visit professional, working artists in their studios is no longer the foundation of this neighborhood event. Every AWR board member is committed to the “Trolley” at any cost – organizational mission, first-born child, pure gold – despite the fact that the entire Corridor could be walked or biked in about 20 minutes tops.  This “trolley tour”, kindly sponsored in a show of support by Alderman Gene Schulter,  curtails traffic to venues beyond Irving Park on the South and Lawrence on the North. Although the reach of the tour has expanded to include all who wish to participate, the boundaries of the tour have contracted – excluding some legitimate Ravenswood businesses and artists. Work by “guest” or non-Ravenswood based artists are displayed in prime, trolley-stop venues, á la Around the Coyote (circa 2003/2004).  At this time, there is no selection process to define professional criteria or jury work.

(Original Post: May 2008)

At last! This May an AWR newsletter arrived in my inbox. The arts tour was “officially” announced followed by the news that ArtWalkRavenswood has a new Executive Director, Sheila Frost. As the former Executive Director of ArtWalkRavenswood, I had an interest in sharing what I knew and what my goals had been with the new ED. I asked Sheila to meet with me to discuss the upcoming Tour of Arts and Industry in Ravenswood Corridor – she kindly agreed.

We discussed my concerns that ArtWalkRavenswood, for better or worse, is the public face of the artists in Ravenswood Corridor. They set the tone for how artists are percieved and determine a standard of respect for artists by their actions (or, lack of action). In 2007, ArtWalkRavenswood earned a very high-level of artistic investment and worked hard to develop relationships with local businesses and community groups such as the Jane Addams Resource Corporation, Threadless (based in Ravenswood), and majority real-estate interest Hayes Properties.

A nonprofit, especially a new nonprofit, faces many challenges: organizational structure; funding; development of programs; board member and staff turn-over; defining and redefining the purpose and mission as environmental changes take place. Building any organization or business is a creative and turbulent process that requires all of its members and directors to meet and agree on one thing: that they are there, together, for the same purpose and that they understand it is their duty as representatives of the organization to fulfill that purpose by giving of their time and talent.

Sheila’ s time with AWR is limited. She leaves in October, after the 2008 arts tour. Once more bereft of their worker bee, the post-tour work may be disconcerting to a group that has evidenced no succession plan or shown more than a sporadic interest in the clean-up. Perhaps, a thank you e-mail to artists for their participation, a request for the return of signage, some holiday fund-raising … maybe? All of these were missing from the 2007 November – December post-tour time period.

Yes, Board Members are volunteers with work and family lives outside of the AWR group. But, being a Director on a nonprofit board comes with responsibilities which a volunteer knowingly accepts. Without guidance and structure, the untended organization will become overwhelmed by even the most simple tasks; “Who will manage the website?”, “Who will maintain contact with artists?”, “What is the guiding vision for the future of AWR?”.

While Board leadership is needed – artist participation is of equal (if not greater) importance. I hope to encourage, exhort and persuade the artists of Ravenswood that their ACTIVE participation is the only way to create an arts tour that represents the level of professional work created in our neighborhood. To be taken seriously we need to take ourselves seriously. We should not be content with a block-party simply because we don’t want to rock the boat.