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updated: 11/2/2012 3:32 PM

Naperville Art League celebrating 50th anniversary

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  • Visitors to the Naperville Art League's Fine Art Center and Gallery can see a range of art by member artists, such as the interactive work by Joe Eddy Brown that the league's Executive Director Debbie Venezia shows.

       Visitors to the Naperville Art League's Fine Art Center and Gallery can see a range of art by member artists, such as the interactive work by Joe Eddy Brown that the league's Executive Director Debbie Venezia shows.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Debbie Venezia, executive director of the Naperville Art League, looks forward to increasing the league's connections with the community as the group celebrates its 50th anniversary.

       Debbie Venezia, executive director of the Naperville Art League, looks forward to increasing the league's connections with the community as the group celebrates its 50th anniversary.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • The Naperville Art League's Fine Art Center and Gallery features a mural that connects the art league to master artists.

       The Naperville Art League's Fine Art Center and Gallery features a mural that connects the art league to master artists.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
 

Tucked away in a residential neighborhood across from a parking lot is a terra cotta-colored building with a surprise on its southern wall.

A witty mural spans the length of the Naperville Fine Art Center and Gallery, forcing passers-by to take notice of what was a fairly nondescript building. Quirky portraits of masters from Picasso to Monet fill the wall.

And there's Debbie Venezia near the center, although not as colorful as her real-life personality, wearing stacks of silver bangles on each wrist and proudly showing artwork stored at the gallery ahead of a major milestone.

The Naperville Art League is celebrating its 50th anniversary, evolving from a small group of founding artists who met in the basement of a local bank to a 250-member league with an active volunteer base.

As executive director of the nonprofit group, Venezia is looking to its long-term goals, with an eye toward boosting the visibility of the gallery.

"We want to be thought of as more progressive and cutting edge," said Venezia, whose brother Mike designed the mural. "We want to be exciting and have people make this a destination."

Prime among Venezia's plans is building the league's educational arm. Adding more youth classes at the gallery, Venezia said, is critical at a time when cash-strapped school districts are cutting art programs.

"It's just such a crime," Venezia said. "Art will impact every area of your life. You look at things differently when you can see the beauty in things."

She's also on the hunt for a powerful exhibit, along the lines of what she calls one of the league's proudest accomplishments: A display of "Anne Frank: A Private Photo Album." The exhibit of 70 photographs taken by Anne's father, Otto Frank, capture life before the family went into hiding in Amsterdam. Visitors traveled from Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin when the exhibit appeared at the gallery in 2010, Venezia said.

"It was so impactful," she said. "It was something that really brought people together."

Another goal is attracting artists who aren't regulars on the local art fair scene for the league's Riverwalk Fine Art Fair, held annually at the end of the season in September.

"I'd like to get artists, maybe outside this area, so that you can bring something new and fresh into the show," Venezia said.

It's a challenge when some out-of-state artists may prefer personal websites to show their work than traveling to outdoor fairs.

Still, Venezia points to the fair's critical success. Sunshine Artist, an art and craft show magazine, has ranked the fair as one of the best in the country. And that backdrop along the Riverwalk doesn't hurt, either.

The size of the juried fair, with about 135 artists, is just right, Venezia said.

"When you go to larger shows, you just somehow become immune to the artwork," Venezia said. "You reach a saturation point."

One of the highlights in the gallery's year-round offerings is the popular "Fabulous Fakes" exhibit in February, when league members put their spins on well-known works of art.

Remember that Donald Trump-Rosie O'Donnell feud? That was inspiration for one member's take on "American Gothic."

"I actually was opposed to it (the exhibit theme) in the beginning," Venezia said. "Artists don't want to copy someone else. They want to be original. And then when we put up the show I was like, 'I will eat my words.' It's just a favorite."

Venezia also wants the league collaborating with more community groups. In January, the league will continue a partnership with a Lombard no-kill cat shelter for a cat-related art display and silent auction.

"We hope we have a strong enough hold in the community that we can be here for at least another 50 years," she said.

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