Artistic Ragdale haven hidden in plain sight
The summer home built by American architect Howard Van Doren Shaw in 1897, lies on more than 50 acres of prairie and stands today for a more creative purpose.
Named for a country house in England, Ragdale has become a nonprofit international retreat annually serving 200 artists, writers, musicians, dancers and poets.
The campus, tucked away off Waukegan Road in Lake Forest, includes four buildings that serve as workspaces and sleeping quarters. Public programs are offered throughout the year, including a high school camp, the Ragdale Ring summer performances, the Halloween "Rags to Witches" event and periodic public tours.
Ragdale's mission is to provide a place for artisans to step away from daily obligations, research ideas, experiment with solutions, connect with peers and create connections that will advance their work and careers, and offer community-focused inspiration and engagement.
"We offer residencies of up to 25 days, free school programs to 1,500 students from more than 30 schools, host an international design competition and produce more than 40 community programs annually with a modest staff and budget of below $1 million," said Ragdale Foundation Executive Director Jeffrey Meeuwsen, 50, of Evanston. "These student programs, even more important now that so many arts programs have been cut."
One campus building was designed and created by IIT students.
In 1976, Shaw's granddaughter, poet Alice Judson Hayes, created the Ragdale Foundation, as a nonprofit artists' community providing a peaceful place for artists to work. She initially managed everything from admissions, to cooking, to mowing the lawn. Ten years later, Hayes donated the buildings and the five-acre grounds to the city of Lake Forest, preserving the property. The 50 acres of adjacent prairie were given to Lake Forest Open Lands to manage in conservancy. The Ragdale Foundation Board and Executive Director Susan Tillett secured a 99-year lease with the city in 2001.
Today, the program can accommodate up to 13 residents at one time as part of 12 sessions per year plus some one-week themed residences. Ragdale is funded mostly with individual donations through fundraising and through grants.
Artist fellowships, creative sabbaticals and residencies are available and vary in length and can be repeated. Fellows receive a stipend in exchange for doing work with local schools, while others pay a subsidized fee during their stay that includes meals and space.
Alumni are invited to assist with programming and be performers. Poet Ravi Shankar and writers Sara Paretsky and Lawrence Block are among notable alums.
Applications for residencies, due a year in advance, "are carefully curated to ensure a cross-pollination of disciplines. This blending (of candidate genres) encourages meaningful, creative shared conversations," said admissions and grants manager Amy Sinclair, 28, of Chicago.
One recent resident, Columbia College visual arts and photography professor, Judy Natal, 65, of Chicago, described Ragdale as "a magical place, a jewel hiding in plain sight. (It is) a place for me to get all these (ideas) out of my head, get things on a wall and work undisturbed, surrounded by people at different stages of their practice. Being there has definitely moved my work forward. The stimulation (received) from this incredible group was an education in itself."
With several programs in visual arts, performing arts and two literary programs all taught by working artists, students receive instruction and get to know one another.
"The last day is a public performance and a student exhibition where students can bring family and friends to the campus and show off what they've been doing all week," said writer Patty McNair, 59, a professor at Columbia who has worked with Ragdale's arts camp.
In the six years since he joined Ragdale, Meeuwsen said officials have doubled the number of fellowships, increased financial aid for low-income artists, lengthened, residencies, launched and expanded school programs, introduced the Ragdale Ring design-build competition and residency.
He plans to focus next on campuswide accessibility, refresh the historic gardens and create a new dance studio.
"If we do not reach young people and nurture them, the whole arts ecosystem will collapse. Our school programs aim to introduce creative careers and possibilities to introduce young people to what it would be like to be an architect, choreography, filmmaker or writer," he said.