Each month, from January through August, Starline Factory’s juried art show draws hundreds of visitors. Discover the dynamics behind this elite art attraction.
Around the time Nancy Merkling had tired of the typical wine-and-cheese art event, she had an epiphany.
“I started a notebook of ideas suggesting, if I were to run an art event, this is what I would do and this is what I wouldn’t do,” says the professional photography instructor. “I wouldn’t have this harpist in the corner and have that be the only music, because then you can’t wait to get somewhere more lively. I struggled with not making it a party and not making it a ‘No Artist Left Behind’ event. I didn’t want to lower the bar.”
For nearly 15 years her ideas percolated until, in 2011, Merkling finally launched a one-of-a-kind art show. The result is 4th Friday at The Starline Gallery, located in the Starline Factory, 300 W. Front St., in Harvard. For the past five years, 4th Friday has become one of the most dynamic art attractions in the region and, perhaps, one of the area’s best-kept secrets.
Held on the fourth Friday of the month from January through August, with a year-end gala in October, this event draws as many as 1,000 people to a one-night-only juried art show. With an emphasis on local talent, this show includes works of traditional and contemporary styles in two-dimensional paintings, drawings, photographs and block prints as well as three-dimensional jewelry, clay or sculpture. Three or four stages are positioned for live musicians.
Visitors can expect a few surprises mixed in, like installation artwork and interactive performers.
“We have the Atrocious Poets from Woodstock,” says Merkling. “They sit at the end of the hall and they just write poetry for you. You give them a theme or five words, or maybe an emotion, and they write you a poem. They bring in things like paper bags and they write their poetry on that.”
Quality artwork is a priority, above all. Every piece on display has undergone a rigorous jury process, led by a team of credible judges from the region and around the nation. As many as 150 artists submit work each month, but only up to 110 pieces are accepted: up to 60 mixed media pieces for the first-floor exhibit and up to 50 photographs for the upstairs photo gallery. Merkling makes no apologies for her high standards.
“We’re not lowering the bar so you can bring your work here,” says Merkling. “We’re keeping the bar high so that everybody who rises to the challenge gets recognized, and those who don’t are challenged either to rise or become rocking chair artists.”
One distinction between 4th Friday and the typical wine-and-cheese opening is Merkling’s emphasis on buying artwork. Some of Merkling’s 80 volunteers dedicate themselves to recruiting buyers and attending art events in places like Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison, Wis. Buyers from those large markets often visit Starline.
“Most all art events seek to sell art on the walls, but it feels like the industry almost feels it’s too bold to ask for that,” says Merkling. “The Gap doesn’t just say, ‘We’ll give you a cocktail.’ The Gap says, ‘Buy this.’ Their goal is to sell clothing – they’ll tell you that. So our goal is the same. Our goal is to say, ‘We’re selling artwork; We’re connecting artists with the community.’”
Visitors to a 4th Friday can enjoy much more than the main displays of juried artwork on the first and second floors. The sprawling, three-block Starline building is home to some 40 artists who maintain personal studios. An additional 22 studio spaces are currently under construction, with plans to add more in the coming years. There’s currently a waiting list of nearly 50 artists.
The old factory, which once produced farm equipment, is owned by Orrin Kinney, who has steadily been renovating it over the past two decades. When 4th Friday began in 2011, the building was very much a diamond in the rough. Today, Starline doubles as a popular wedding venue and is home to Harvard’s WHIW radio station. A ground-floor pub, The Stanchion, serves food and drinks on weekends and during social events.
“Men who aren’t really into art typically find art events boring,” says Merkling, as she shows off the lovingly restored exposed architectural elements of the building. “Men love this building. They walk through and go, ‘This is the best building ever.’”
Artists who set up in Starline find value not only in the building but also in the 4th Friday experience. Merkling points to one studio that’s occupied by a Woodstock-based flower shop.
“They know the value of the people – not just the number of people, but the caliber of the people we bring in,” says Merkling, who’s maintained her own studio in Starline for several years. “They rent a studio here for the sole purpose of being open during 4th Fridays, and then it gives them another location to do flowers for a wedding at Starline.”
Roscoe-based art photographer Sherry Pritz has shared studio space in Starline since 2015. She, too, finds value in opening that studio during 4th Friday.
“We probably have between 300 and 400 people who filter into our studio,” she says. “Usually they’ll look around for a while and talk to one of the three resident artists. It’s different because at other shows, you don’t have artist studios – you’d just have the art, and sometimes even the artists aren’t present.”
But at 4th Friday, the artists do show up, and that’s a point of pride for Merkling. The way she sees it, she’s creating a marketplace where artists are serious about their business and art aficionados are eager to buy.
Merkling also takes her mission to families, encouraging them to begin their own collections of quality artwork. Pritz recently met a 6-year-old whose grandmother prompted him to start a collection.
“He chose something from another resident artist that I would say was more child-like, an animal made of wool,” Pritz recalls. “But he also chose my artwork of Navy Pier. He even wanted his picture taken with me. I was just elated that this young man thought it was important to start his art collection with his grandmother, and he chose one of my pieces.”
Amazingly, the event is funded entirely by Merkling and Kinney – no nonprofit support, no grants. This is a business.
“Once you start bringing in outside funds and scholarships, it starts becoming Campbell’s tomato soup instead of something that’s simmered for days,” says Merkling. “It becomes like all the other shows, and then you end up wanting to make the bottom line, and creating a boring event – every reason why we tried to break the mold.”
Merkling constantly dreams of new ideas she can bring to 4th Friday, but she’s grounded in the idea of joining artists, buyers and art lovers for a unique experience in a colorful location.
“The artists like this scene because the buyers show up,” says Merkling. “How do you force people to buy artwork? You don’t use force, to begin with, but rather you create an event that makes them want to come back every time. You remind them they should really be buying artwork. Eventually, they do.”
For information on the next show, visit nancymerkling.com.