By Ken Trainor
The best part of Camille Wilson White's job is giving out money.
"That's the fun part," says the longtime executive director of the Oak Park Area Arts Council (OPAAC). "There are a lot of worthy organizations doing excellent work in the tri-village area, and they all need money."
OPAAC, in fact, gave away roughly $33,000 to 25 arts organizations during their annual meeting on March 20.
"It's an opportunity to reward good work," Wilson White says. "It doesn't get better than that."
Actually, it was twice as good before the Great Recession slammed the arts community more than most of society's sectors. At one point about six years ago, Wilson White recalls, the annual ArtsFunds awards reached a peak of $70,000.
"But we feel good just that we've been able to keep the program going," she said.
OPAAC has 20 member organizations, plus support from Community Bank of Oak Park-River Forest, but you don't have to be a member to apply for and receive funding.
"Most organizations don't have the manpower to find grants," she noted, "but they can apply here. Our motto is 'OPAAC is always there for the arts.'"
It's a competitive process, though, and not everyone receives a grant.
"It's been a rough five years," she admits, "a trying time for the arts."
But it has ever been thus. OPAAC started in 1974 when several networking arts entrepreneurs, including Stephanie Clemens (Academy of Movement & Music, Momenta), choral director William Messner, and Linda Crabtree Powell, among others, had "the bright idea to form an agency," Wilson White recalls.
Clemens kept the group's files in her kitchen at first. In 1976 they incorporated and in '79 OPAAC became one of the first local arts councils in the state to begin a grant program, funded partly by the village of Oak Park and partly by the Illinois Arts Council.
Wilson White became the agency's executive director in 1999. Former village trustee John Troelstrup is the longstanding president of the 10-member board.
"The last five years have been challenging but rewarding," she says, ever the optimist. "Funding went south, but it's the same all over. We have to think about ways to sustain the arts community through creative fundraising."
Their biggest annual effort, Artful Object, is coming up this Saturday, April 20. Traditionally held each December, they decided to shift it to spring. The fundraiser is a showcase for local artists, who donate samples of their work for sale, with the proceeds benefitting OPAAC's scholarship program. Donations come from far and wide, including former Oak Park resident Marie Pospisil, who sends something every year from New York.
This year's event, held at the AGLS building, 222 Lake St. (across the street from Dominick's) on April 20, will have a Beatnik/1950s theme. Charlie Rossiter of Unity Temple's 3rd Saturday Coffeehouse, will serve as emcee.
"Dress in your Beatnik best — if you dare," says Wilson White. The event runs from 7 to 11 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at oakparkareaartscouncil.org or by phone (708-358-5692).
Last year the estate of Otto Neumann donated a piece from his art collection (retired UIC art history professor David Sokol of Oak Park is the curator), which was auctioned off for $6,000. Another piece will be donated this year.
Wilson White, who is a board member of Arts Alliance Illinois, says she and her cohorts have been lobbying government to invest more in the arts. The goal is $2 per person.
"We're not there yet," she admits. In general, she says, the state of the arts is: struggling but surviving. "We're putting our best foot forward."
OPAAC's summer arts program, Off the Wall, is one of those survivors. They were able to hire eight teens last summer, all girls, to work with a professional artist, completing a mural titled, "Flourish," on the wall of an apartment building at 1532 N. Austin Blvd. (just south of Austin and North Avenue). Painting the train embankment panels (Community Mini-Mural Project) is another, adding aesthetic appeal to an otherwise unattractive portion of the village. And OPAAC continues to award scholarships to promising young artists as they head off to study the arts in college.
Wilson White's message to local lovers of culture?
"Support the arts," she says. "Renew your memberships. Come to Artful Object. It's the best bang for your buck."