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On the Prairie
Carrie Neill | Photo: Katrina Wittkamp | July 1, 2013
Jeffrey Meeuwsen took over the reins at Ragdale last fall—the first new executive director at the lauded artists colony in more than a decade. A visual artist himself, Meeuwsen is spearheading a large rebranding effort and a host of new programs focused on bringing the organization closer to the North Shore and Chicago communities. He sat down with NS to tell us about his first year on the job.
You’ve said that one of your goals as executive director is to expand Ragdale’s sphere of influence locally with other cultural institutions, government organizations and business. Is that underway?
Yes. I spent almost every Friday last fall going into the city and meeting with places like Columbia, DePaul, the MCA and the Poetry Foundation and asking a lot of open-ended questions about what those organizations have planned and how we might partner with them and advance everyone. That’s critical right now with arts funding so limited. One idea is if an organization is bringing in someone from another part of the world for a program, they could partner with Ragdale and offer a residency so that person can be in the Chicago area for longer. Then if there’s a public program, it can happen both in Chicago and on the North Shore. That’s a perfect example of a program that doesn’t have a lot of cost but has a lot of impact.
One of the big initiatives you’ve started this year is the Ragdale Ring Project, a temporary outdoor venue that will host a series of performances open to the public throughout the summer. What kinds of events can people expect to see?
We’re introducing curators and artistic directors and some of our alumni and talent from across the Midwest to the North Shore. The performances will be inventive, contemporary and multidisciplinary with a range of creative people. There will be a combination of jazz, dance and performance poetry, an evening of storytelling and song, and a hybrid performance of video projection and light. It’ll be like nothing else that’s being presented in this area. People can bring a picnic and enjoy the Ragdale Lawn, which overlooks the prairie. The performances will all happen at sunset, so it promises to be really beautiful.
The New York Times said a few years ago that as artists colonies go, ‘The sex is better at Yaddo but the work is better at MacDowell,’ referring to well-known artists colonies in New York and New Hampshire. What’s Ragdale’s identity as an artists’ retreat?
Ragdale’s identity is certainly enmeshed in the incredible history of the [acclaimed Arts & Crafts architect Howard Van Doren] Shaw family and generations of creative people of all types who have been experimenting here for years. We’re one of the largest programs in the country, and yet we’re able to maintain an intimacy. We never have more than 13 residents at any time, and they come from many different creative disciplines. They gather, cross-pollinate and build bonds that become lifelong friendships after three weeks. There’s a ‘Midwesterness’ about Ragdale too, which is about being great hosts and very generous. We go out of our way to do what we can to support artists, and I’m interested in taking that even farther.
North Shore favorites
• The Metra (in any direction)
• Wholly Frijoles in Lincolnwood
• Found Kitchen and Social House at 4:30PM on a Sunday in Evanston
• Family-style dinners with Ragdale artists