With new staff and a new site imminent, the Evanston Art Center, in the words of Executive Director Norah Diedrich, is at a crossroads. Poised for challenges to come, Diedrich says, “The environment and economy that we’re all in—whether you’re a for-profit company, a Fortune 500, or a community center—is in flux and chaos. Darwin said it’s not the smartest or strongest that survives but the most adaptable.” As the Art Center’s new director since 2009, Diedrich is looking outward and onward. She worked previously as Manager of Public Programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and as the Director of Cultural Programs at Alliance Française, and is now applying her experience in community engagement to plan the Evanston Art Center’s future.
The EAC, which runs art classes and exhibitions, was quite at home in the lakeside Harley Clarke Mansion, a crumbling Tudor-style residence built in 1926, which it has leased from the city of Evanston since 1966, for $1 per year. The house, however, is in need of $400,000 worth of exterior repairs. Evanston’s City Council voted unanimously last July to sell the mansion because, according to City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, the city cannot afford to make repairs. The EAC is responsible for interior repairs and compliance with ADA accessibility. The lease does not expire until 2021, but a provision of the lease allows either party to terminate the agreement with eight months notice.
At Evanston’s decision to sell, Diedrich and the EAC’s Board of Trustees explored the possibility of purchasing the building, but have instead opted to find a new location that will allow them to expand. One goal is to start a visiting artist program. Another is to bring all the art studios under one roof, as they are currently split across the mansion and the nearby Noyes Cultural Arts Center. The large-scale, site-specific “Sculpture on the Grounds” project, located on the mansion’s front lawn, has been an ambitious and expensive annual program. Diedrich wants that public sculpture program to continue, but she says, “It doesn’t have to be in our front yard. There are many creative models across the country, such as projections on the front of buildings or installations on the roof.” Factors such as fundraising and TIF districts will influence those decisions, including whether to build or to renovate the EAC’s new home. Diedrich points to the EAC’s history at a series of relocations and adaptations. Since its founding in 1929, the EAC has been housed in the basement of the public library and an abandoned barbershop, among others. The Art Center is working with a consultant to plan for a possible capital campaign, and with an architecture firm to find an appropriate location.
Central to the EAC are its art classes, ranging from traditional mediums to new technologies, which serve students ages three through eighty. The EAC rotates exhibitions and hosts lectures and panels addressing art history or issues critical to the art world every month or so. “The gallery space is part of art education,” says Diedrich. “Our students can go downstairs and see the work of emerging and established artists.” Diedrich first came to the EAC as a student of photography. As a mother living in Wilmette, the EAC provided an affordable, accessible alternative to college courses. She went on to exhibit her work in the juried biennial and to teach there. This fall, Shannon Stratton, executive and creative director of the gallery threewalls, will jury the twenty-first biennial, which is the only exhibition of its kind in the Chicago area. From the 2012 biennial, Stratton will select three artists for solo shows at the EAC.
In January, Diedrich hired art educator, writer and researcher William Keith Brown as director of education. Diedrich and Brown want to do more to access the community, with more artist interactions and events responding to current issues such as the recent Occupy protests. “As a critical community art center, we should be thinking about how everyday life and culture inform art making and how art made here serves our present and future life in a democratic society,” says Brown.
Moving or building necessitates additional fundraising, the success of which will shape the new opportunities such a facility could offer. A location closer to downtown Evanston would make it more accessible. Diedrich says the many not-for-profits in Evanston compete for the community’s attention. In the EAC’s favor is an energetic staff with relatively little bureaucratic red tape. Diedrich is confident of the EAC’s future. “We’re working with the city. They don’t want us to leave Evanston.”