The tranquil world of Lake Forest’s Ragdale Foundation has a new leader and one who hopes can take the artists retreat even deeper into the nation’s—let alone the Chicagoland area’s—culture culture landscape.
Jeffrey Meeuwsen (pronounced MOO-sin) has just completed his first week as Executive Director of Ragdale, the colony which has artists coming in from all over the country to concentrate on their craft in peaceful surroundings. It is the fourth largest artists’ community in the country and has been a Lake Forest staple since 1976.
“I’ve known of Ragdale for some time and I have really been intrigued by its history,” Meeuwsen said of his reasons for taking the job. “(On) the other side of it I have worked for a museum presenting work and this is an opportunity to work with creative people while they are producing work.”
Meeuwsen replaced Susan Tillett, who resigned in April, after 12 years on the job.
Ragdale Board President Phoebe Turner released a statement praising Meeuwsen and what she hopes he can accomplish.
“In Jeff, we have the leader who can move Ragdale to a new level of service to artist residents, the community and the cultural field at large,” Turner said. “His career has prepared him well to strategically and thoughtfully heighten Ragdale’s profile, impact and contribution to the creative process.”
Meeuwsen Seeks Strategic Planning
Meeuwsen wants to build on some strategic planning that has recently been completed by the board and he now believes it is his responsibility to ensure those plans are implemented.
“I would like to see Ragdale play an even more vital role in the arts and culture scene in Chicago,” he said. “I think there is great alignment with what Ragdale does best and what the city would like to be known for. However we can create partnerships with other cultural institutions, local government or for profit businesses that really advances all of us.”
On a personal level, Meeuwsen describes himself as “in a relationship” with no children and living in Evanston.
Meeuwsen, 44, arrives at Ragdale following a ten-year stewardship of the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids where, among other accomplishments, that organization received praise from the White House for youth programs and a new six story arts center was constructed.
But his tenure did not end completely smoothly as financial issues given the tough economy were beginning to pop up.
Navigating a Transition
“The arts and culture field internationally is at a moment of transition in funding,” Meeuwsen said. “Everybody is experiencing a shift and some amount of struggle so it is key that we build our reputation, have new collaborations and are constantly rethinking how we do it so we are substantial.”
However, he does not anticipate those same problems at his new home.
“There is certainly more support for arts and culture in Illinois than there was in Michigan and I am looking forward to the focus of Ragdale working with the board and the community and taking Ragdale to a new level of creativity and collaboration,” he said.
There are 12 artists in residence right now at Ragdale, the latest group just showed up a few days ago. That is the maximum capacity for the grounds that used to be summer home of renowned Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw. Over 200 people come through each year to work on their craft in a very quiet atmosphere. The average stay is about two weeks.
How Meeuwsen will assist the artists is based on individual need.
“My goal is to help Ragdale evolve and grow to do all that it can to support artists at pivotal moments of their careers,” he said. “That may mean just time and space, but it could also mean mentorships, exhibitions or connections in the Chicago area.”