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Five artists who had been taking creative classes together in 1959 decided to found the Columbia Art League, a place where like minded creatives could come together to create, appreciate, and learn. The group started by meeting at the home of Betty Robins, who spearheaded the organizational efforts.
The first Art in the Park was held as an art fair on Cherry Street as a way of encouraging artists to share their work with one another and with the community at large.
The event has grown quite a bit since then, but Art in the Park is still free to the public, and the festival showcases a diverse range of mediums that are available for purchase. “There is art for everybody,” says Executive Director Holly Stitt.
Over the years, CAL has added installations, interactive activities, food vendors, and performers to the overall experience of the festival, which now draws both artists and attendees from across the state.
The newest addition to the festival this year was the Veterans’ Art Pavilion, which was an extension of the outreach CAL does with the VA reintegration program. The pavilion featured art created by veterans and let them share their stories with the community.
The Young Collector’s Tent is another unique experience the festival offers each year. Artists who show their work in the festival donate a collection of pieces to CAL to hang in the Young Collector’s Tent. Children are encouraged to choose one of these pieces without the help of their parents so they can identify the kind of art that resonates with them personally. They are then given a map of where the artist is located in the festival so they can meet the artist in person.
“We get feedback from the artists that the best part of coming to the show is seeing those kids and working with them. It’s one of the best parts of Art in the Park,” says Stitt.
As CAL celebrates 60 years of Art in the Park, they’re reflecting on how they have grown from a small collective into a thriving nonprofit. CAL now employs three full-time staff members who coordinate with 20 to 25 volunteers to run the gallery, teach classes, and direct outreach.
An annual fee allows patrons to become members of CAL. Members are given discounted rates to gallery shows, access to members-only shows, and opportunities to show their art in community exhibits. “We really strive to get people into the arts and using the arts in any way that we can,” says Stitt.
President Pam Gainor says the shows are especially rewarding due to “the joy that people find in doing art, and the courage they experience putting their art out for other people to see.”
CAL has also created different outreach programs for youth in the Columbia area. Emerging Artists is one such program focused on encouraging high school students and college undergraduates to show their art in one of the galleries that CAL curates. Pieces are also displayed in the emerging artists’ tent at Art in the Park.
A mentorship program for at-risk and underprivileged teens is another way in which CAL engages young artists. Teens are paired with a master artist for the school year to learn how to create different forms of art. The water serpent that was featured in the lake at this year’s Art in the Park was created by one of the mentees from this program.
The gallery at CAL features six shows a year, with two being members-only shows. The remaining four shows are open to anyone in the community who wants to display their art.
Artists who are featured may be well-known or up-and-coming. Each show is themed, and art is selected based on the approval of juried panels.
Give a Gift of Art is currently on display; the show is intended to encourage patrons to purchase art as gifts during the holiday season.
In addition to the galleries, CAL’s building houses a classroom, where both children and adults can learn a variety of crafts. Painting, hand lettering, basket weaving, and drawing are just a few of the classes taught there.
CAL’s main goal for the future is to further expand its membership base. In doing so, CAL can mobilize outreach initiatives and programming, all of which directly funnel back into the community.
“I’m a big advocate that everybody, no matter what line of work they’re in, no matter what they do, needs to have art in their world,” says Stitt. “Whether they create it or they appreciate it, whether it’s show worthy or not, doing it makes them a better person and better at what they do.”