Arts & Entertainment

Freeport Art Museum: ‘An Amazing Museum for a Town this Size’

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Step inside this amazing little museum’s big collection, and discover some of the unique pieces hidden inside. See how the museum got its start, and how it’s preparing for the future.

Gloria Snopko, Kathee Michalski and Julia Kim, members of the Wayne Art League from Batavia, Ill., discuss one of the paintings from the American Watercolor Society’s annual watercolor exhibition, which was on display at the Freeport Art Museum this spring. (Karla Nagy photo)

Julia Kim, Kathee Michalski and Gloria Snopko pause before each painting – commenting, pointing, stepping back or sideways for a different perspective.

These three members of the Wayne Art League of Batavia, Ill., are visiting the Freeport Art Musuem (FAM), to view the 144th traveling exhibition of paintings from the American Watercolor Society’s annual juried show. The Society, founded in New York City in 1866, each year picks only six venues across the country to host its exhibition, which is open to artists from around the world; this is the fourth time FAM has been chosen.

“We came for the watercolor exhibit,” says Michalski. “This is our first visit [to FAM], because we didn’t know about it before now.”

“This is an amazing museum for a town this size,” Kim comments.

“We’ll definitely be back,” Snopko concludes. Before leaving, the ladies ask for recommendations from the staff on places in Freeport to stop for lunch.

“We feel very fortunate to have the exhibit again,” says Jennifer Kirker Priest, FAM executive director. “There are more than 40 watercolors in the show, and it always draws in new visitors.”

On this particular day, members of the Monroe (Wis.) Arts Center are also viewing the watercolor exhibit, which was on display at FAM March 3-May 19.

“We’re trying to get more interactive with visitors to the museum,” Kirker Priest says. “For example, we have a ballot box here, and we’re asking people to vote for their favorite watercolor in the exhibit. Each week, a staff member tallies the ballots and posts on FAM’s website the three most popular choices among visitors for the previous seven day period.”

Surprisingly, the relative anonymity of this rich community resource isn’t limited to outsiders; many Freeport residents also seem to be unaware of the museum and its contents and programs. But Kirker Priest, her small staff and FAM’s dedicated board are working hard to change that, from renovating galleries and changing exhibits more often, to expanding PR and outreach programs.

How it Began

FAM was established in 1976, the result of an acquisition from the estate of W.T. Rawleigh, founder of a successful international household and medical products company in Freeport. Rawleigh came to Freeport in 1889, and began selling “Good Health Products” by horse and rented buggy. By his third year, he had several rigs selling his spices, herbs and medicines, and a stop from “the Rawleigh man” was a highly anticipated event. He established his Freeport factory in 1904, and the company went international in 1912.

The entrepreneur also invested in bettering his community, from philanthropic endeavors to public service; he served as mayor of Freeport, and in 1924 was even considered as a vice presidential candidate by the Progressive Party. Rawleigh, who died in 1951, used his substantial wealth to acquire fabulous works of art from around the globe for his private collection; in 1976, a sizable portion of the collection was given to the residents of Freeport, and to house it, what is now FAM was created.

Among the Rawleigh collection: early Pueblo pottery from the American southwest; large European paintings (mostly 19th century); European bronze and marble sculptures from the 17th and 19th centuries; and from Florence, one of the world’s most extensive collections of pietra dura – translated from the Italian as “hard stone” – a mosaic art form. Created to be inlaid decorative elements in furniture, pietra dura appear to be painted landscapes or portraits, but are actually created entirely from hand cut, highly polished agate, alabaster, onyx, lapis lazuli, amethyst, jade and other precious colored stones.

Over the years, other benefactors have added to FAM holdings, including a Near & Far East Collection; the Egyptian Collection, which includes a child-sized mummy case and mummified animals; artifacts from Papua New Guinea and Africa; a Native American collection, not only from North but also Central and South America; a contemporary gallery; and more. A recent acquisition is an impressive collection of textiles.

Today, FAM has more than 4,000 pieces in its permanent collection.

The Art of Sharing

FAM’s home is a former elementary school, leased from the City of Freeport, given with the stipulation that no admission be charged. (The building is strikingly similar to that which houses the Dixon Historic Center in Dixon, Ill.)
On the main floor are two galleries used for FAM’s special exhibits, along with three more that display pieces from FAM’s permanent collection.

“We’re working to renovate and update these rooms,” Kirker Priest explains, who was hired as FAM’s director in 2006. “In the Near and Far East gallery, a student from Highland Community College is creating more informative displays that help to explain the pieces and history of each region. We’ve already painted the walls for our temporary exhibits. They were much darker, and now that they’re white, the art really pops against them. Next, we want to tackle the Native American gallery – repaint the walls and create more interesting exhibit cases by rotating the art on display.”

FAM works to facilitate visitors by keeping its galleries spacious and open, rather than cramming as many pieces from every collection into the rooms. “In many museums, the sheer number of things to see becomes a case of sensory overload,” says Kirker Priest. “People don’t remember what they’ve seen, because there’s so much of it.”

The new informative graphics are meant to encourage longer stops by visitors in each gallery.

“The average museum-goer spends three seconds in front of an exhibit,” says Kirker Priest. “We’re trying to give families reasons to linger and learn.”

Changing out the pieces on display more often is a way to motivate repeat visits as well as showcase more of FAM’s extensive collection. Another incentive for repeat visits is FAM’s Mystery Object of the Month, which is also another way for visitors to become more involved in the collections.

“We pull out something intriguing and place it in a different location within the museum,” explains Kirker Priest. “Then, we have a form visitors can fill out, if they want, to try to guess what the object is made of and what its use was. We post the answer on our website after a month. We’re trying to find ways for visitors to actively participate in the museum and be a fun, free place for families.”

L. Budd: “The Entourage,” from the American Watercolor Society’s traveling exhibit, hosted for the fourth time by FAM earlier this spring. (Freeport Art Museum photo)

On the second floor is the African and Oceanic Gallery, the student gallery, which showcases art created by local students, and FAM’s Contemporary Gallery. “We’ve pulled some of our watercolors from our permanent collection to compliment the one downstairs,” says Kirker Priest.

Art and museum education are central to Freeport Art Museum’s role in the community. Outreach programs include family and school workshops, along with every 4th and 6th grader through FAM during the school year.

“We try to address their learning initiatives, and supplement the classroom lessons,” Kirker Priest explains. “For instance, when the students are studying Egypt, they come here and see the mummified animals, mummy case and canopic jars – the jars that held the organs – along with the other Egyptian artifacts in our collection. Then, they create their own clay cartouche using Egyptian hiergolyphs.”

A new director of education was hired in April. “Barry Treu holds an MFA and is a former university instructor and museum educator,” says Kirker Priest. “He has a wealth of experience. When I arrived, we conducted a feasibility study, and the community saw our educational programs as having the most potential for growth. We expect, with his arrival, that our programs will double. We also received grants from US Bank and MetLife, for after-school programs with the Freeport Boys and Girls Club.”

FAM also hosts adult art classes, and strives to bring in temporary exhibitions to attract a wider audience.

“Our vision is to be a destination for the arts,” says Kirker Priest. “We also want to be a part of the city’s revitalization program. With that vision, we’ve worked on offering more relevant exhibits, like the ‘Cultural View of Body Art,’ that included tattoos. I’m particularly proud of our Silent Echoes veteran exhibit, that included art and objects that veterans carried with them during war time.”

Most recent was an exhibit of historical pianos provided by a collector from South Dakota. “The collector was a very knowledgeable tour guide, and we were excited to showcase a very different art form,” says Kirker Priest. We’ve tried to be a larger part of people’s everyday lives, and that’s been very rewarding.”

The Art of Growth

FAM has a dedicated Board of Directors and many individuals who support its programs and collections.

“It’s an important cultural center,” says James Lee, former board president and current board member. “Any local art museum plays a role in introducing art from around the world to the community. Ours is unique in its diverse collection, given its size. Many community art museums specialize, but ours has more than 4,000 pieces from many eras and cultures. It really demonstrates the role art plays. Even in primitive cultures, when they spent most of their time working to stay alive, the people created beautiful pottery and art.”

The board recently raised funds to rehab the storage area for FAM’s collection and install professional, museum-quality exhibit cabinets for the pieces not on display. Of course, that meant everything had to be moved out and then brought back in – more than a weekend project.

“Board members and other volunteers helped out, and we discovered many pieces we’d forgotten we owned or that hadn’t been displayed in years,” says Lee. “Each of us found something we’d especially like to get on display, so Jennifer made a list of everyone’s favorites, and she’s going to work to get them all out sometime within the next year.”

Danelle Setterstrom is an art teacher at Freeport High School, and director of the local Empty Bowls program. Empty Bowls raises awareness of and funds to battle hunger, by soliciting local artists to donate handcrafted bowls and local restaurants to donate homemade soups. Visitors buy the bowls during a live auction and then partake of the soup, served up in their newly-purchased bowls.

“I’ve been director of Empty Bowls for five years, and this is the fourth time we’ve held it at FAM,” says Setterstrom. “We have a great working relationship with FAM. Jennifer is always open to ideas and very open to collaboration.”
“I love relationship building,” says Kirker Priest. “The Empty Bowls event is a prime example of reaching out into the community, and getting to know people I possibly wouldn’t have met otherwise. It’s very gratifying.”

FAM has potential for growth, but the usual challenges faced by a nonprofit organization are amplified in this tough economy.

“We recently lost a tenant, the Stephenson County Senior Center, and we’re slowly expanding into the space they previously occupied,” says Kirker Priest. “On one hand, it’s wonderful to have the room to offer more art classes and other programs. But at the same time, the loss of that income makes growth more of a challenge. We have 11 furnaces and 8 air conditioning units, all of which are needed to maintain the right temperature and humidity for our collections, and now, we pay those utility bills all by ourselves.”

Setterstrom encourages her students to visit FAM on their own, and takes her classes there on field trips whenever possible. She and her husband take their children to FAM art classes on Saturdays; it was during a Raku pottery demonstration that the couple was inspired to begin making their own pottery, which they now sell.

“We’re members, and we try to attend the gallery openings,” says Setterstrom. “We donated a piece to FAM’s Paint the Town Annual benefit, and we always try to participate at Aspiring Artists. We advocate for the museum whenever we can. It’s such an integral part of arts in Freeport.”

The facility has been gifted a parcel of land in downtown Freeport, and plans for a new building are being contemplated, although no solid plans are even in the works.

“Our first step is to explore ways to secure financing, through endowments, grants, things of that nature,” says Kirker Priest. “But I believe a new building downtown would be an asset for the entire community. It would create jobs and new events in the downtown area. With it, we would further our mission to become a destination for the arts and be part of the city’s revitalization.”

FAM is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and noon-5 p.m. on Saturday. Exhibits, special events, classes and programs are listed on its website, freeportartmuseum.com. ❚

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