The Evanston Art Center must leave the Harley Clarke Mansion; that much is clear. The City Council seems set on pursuing a lease agreement with the Costal Management Program of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Because there is nothing concrete to react to, the overture by IDNR can be everyone’s blank slate, upon which to inscribe their hopes and dreams for money and the mansion. The very idea of a rent-paying tenant in the mansion whose mission is stewardship for the environment is exciting and enticing.
So the time for recriminations and boosterism has passed. Yes, the Art Center paid only $1 per year in rent under a multi-year lease, but the City was a willing partner in that lease. That rent subsidy may be comparable to, though more generous than, the rent subsidy offered for years to artists at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center. Yes, some repairs are necessary, and some restoration, desirable, and, yes, we love the Art Center.
More importantly, this community needs the Art Center, not only for what it is now but for its potential. The Evanston Cradle to Career Initiative (ECCI) needs organizations like the Art Center. The ECCI is a communitywide consortium formed around the premise of “collective impact” – that schools, community organizations, business groups and others can have a greater impact by working together than working alone to address complex issues. Its goal is that “by the age of 23, all Evanston youth will be leading productive lives.”
Education, training and mentoring will be some of the keys to the success of this initiative, and the arts must play an important role. And so should the Art Center. Its board of directors has ambitious plans to expand, and, we trust, extensive outreach to the Evanston community will be among those plans. This outreach can take the form of offering free or sliding-scale classes at their new center, in-school or after-school programs, mentoring budding artists … With artists, possibilities are creative and unexpected.
The Evanston Children’s Choir already provides one model of inclusive outreach: No child is denied admission to the choir for lack of financial resources. Anyone who has heard an ECC performance should have been impressed by the talent, dedication, dignity and discipline of these young singers. We hope that other arts organizations will similarly expand their outreach and become a part of integrating the arts into the lives of all young Evanstonians to increase the collective impact of the Cradle to Career Initiative.
The possibility – no, the necessity – of expanding the arts into the fabric of the community – makes it imperative that the Evanston Art Center continue in Evanston. Its new quarters may not be as glamorous as its current lakefront location, but a new center will be up to code and will be spacious enough for the Center’s aspirations.
We trust the wisdom of the Art Center board and the City Council and the vision of artists and architects to come up with a space in Evanston that can be adaptively re-used as our Art Center.
It is vital to help the Art Center begin its relocation process and renew its search for space immediately, because, even if the IDNR plans fall through, the City will surely seek another tenant.
We hope the City can work out a plan with IDNR.
Evanston has been fortunate to have this well-loved and well-respected institution for more than 70 years. Especially considering the arts organizations we have lost in the recent past, let us not lose sight of the value of the Art Center in our eagerness to charm IDNR.