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Lisa Degliantoni, a San Francisco native and founder of the arts organization Evanston Made, says she loves everything about Evanston except its topography. While she has not found a way to affect the contours of the local landscape since arriving here seven years ago, she has moved mountains to effect change in the arts community.
It is her adoptive town’s good fortune that Ms. Degliantoni is susceptible to suggestion.
She was living in New York City when she met her Midwest-born husband. The couple took jobs in El Paso, Texas. Then, she says, a friend told them Evanston, Illinois, was “the only place in North America to raise kids.” The couple took that advice and relocated with their two young boys. With their sons now at Evanston Township High School, she says they have not been disappointed.
Having turned 40 and “chased a media career” around the country, Ms. Degliantoni says she was “ready to put that career to bed.” Inspiration for a new direction struck, she says, when she read a study claiming that there were more artists in Evanston – “10 times more,” it claimed – “than in any other city of its size.”
“Where are they?” she asked. Not very visible, she found.
And with that, Ms. Degliantoni became an arts advocate, focusing her considerable energy on ways to introduce artists to each other, to the community at large and to the world. She was appointed to the Evanston Arts Council and in short order, became the community organizer for visual arts.
She launched the precursor to Evanston Made in 2012 with an artist studio tour, inviting the public to encounter creative people in their own environment. She called the event Open Studio Evanston, not realizing there was already a well-established organization by that name. The first year, 11 artists opened their workplaces; last year there were 65, with tours scheduled in both June and September.
Three years ago, Ms. Degliantoni settled on the name Evanston Made. The co-owner of the downtown shop Stumble & Relish designed a logo. Ms. Degliantoni, who says she had “single-handedly been getting out the message” about the diversity of Evanston art, began staging events to promote Evanston as a destination for artists and art lovers. “We intend to keep artists and the public in the know about everything artsy in Evanston,” reads the Evanston Made website.
Evanston Made became a membership organization in 2019 and in December of 2019 earned 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. Some 275 artists have paid the $75 annual dues. Attendance at a variety of programs has far outstripped expectations. A Feb. 5 members meeting at the Ecology Center attracted 85, for example. They had expected a maximum of 50.
Many of the EM activities geared to help artists arose from Ms. Degliantoni’s observations of her husband’s career as a visual artist. She says she realized that artists have a burdensome set of tasks not necessarily a good fit for their temperament. Besides coming up with a concept and executing it, they must conceive of a way to market it.
At Evanston Made, she points out, members can find support in the areas of professional development, community building, exhibitions and sales and granting. The members section of the organization’s new website features portfolio pages with photographs of artists’ work. Along with hints on how to build a portfolio, the website contains advice on how to use a cell phone to take pictures that show artwork to full advantage.
Artists can now sell their work on the website as well as at the Makers Market in September in the Maple Avenue garage. Last year, Ms. Degliantoni says, the Market drew 106 vendors.
Giving lie to the stereotype of the lone artist, members flock to socialize and network at monthly “mixers” held at various studios and galleries.
Member artists have multiple occasions to show their work. EM curates exhibits at such venues as the Backlot Café, City Council chambers and the Mayor’s office. So as not to compete with Chicago’s First Friday events, Evanston Made has dibs on First Saturdays.
The all-member group show held at the Evanston Art Center is the largest event of the Center’s year. This summer’s show, the fourth, will run from May 29 to June 30.
Three years ago, Ms. Degliantoni bought the low, brick building at 1100 Florence Ave., at the corner of Greenleaf Street.. She and her family live and work in the back. The bright, many-windowed space at the front is the gallery, available for member exhibits.
It is not a traditional gallery, she says, where the owner takes 40% of the selling price. The gallery model is changing anyway, she says. Social media such as Instagram offer platforms for artists to market their art without the gallery middleman and, therefore, keep all profits.
There are three possible arrangements for exhibiting at the gallery at 1100 Florence. Ms. Degliantoni will curate an exhibit for a percentage of the sales, as in a traditional gallery; or the artist can rent the gallery, host the exhibit and keep 100% of the profits; or the artist can rent the gallery and host a pop-up show to test the response of the public to a new product.
Ms. Degliantoni’s ambitions for Evanston Made go far beyond the success for which she was recognized in December with the 2019 Mayor’s Award for the Arts. The Dempster-Florence neighborhood, once home to a large Polish immigrant population, now boasts enough artist studios and businesses that the City named it the West Village Art District.
But Ms. Degliantoni envisions something more concrete, such as a “grouping of buildings, perhaps with a TIF overlay,” that would house studios and a restaurant and attract prospective collectors of Evanston art. She sees a future Evanston Made as an organization supporting all maker artisans (including the likes of brewers of craft beer).
It comes as a surprise to learn that, with all her expertise, Lisa Degliantoni is not an artist herself.
She is an arts activist. “I don’t make things,” she says. “I make things happen.”