• Kim Piekos

Something to Write Home About: Big Changes at Ragdale

By Kim Piekos

The bucolic Ragdale campus, home to one of the nation’s largest residential artists’ communities, is generating quite a bit of news these days. In addition to hiring a proven leader and fundraising veteran as its executive director, Ragdale has opened a state-of-the-art dance and music studio and is poised to acquire the Hart home next door.

“Artists benefit from taking breaks from time to time, to be restored and reenergized,” says Michael Cleavenger, who was hired as Ragdale's executive director this year. “Ragdale was known as a quaint, sleepy writer’s retreat for years, but that’s about to change,” says new Executive Director Michael Cleavenger. “We are expanding our physical footprint and our ability to offer facilities for a variety of artistic disciplines, and we are becoming a major artist retreat center --not only in the Midwest, but nationwide.”

Cleavenger has worked in the Chicago’s arts, education and non-profit scenes for years. He helped raise $260 million to reinvent the Illinois Institute of Technology, raised $55 million with Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian, to support the Chicago History Museum and served as Associate Dean of Loyola’s Quinlan School of Business, among other accomplishments. Board of Trustee member Frederic Klein said Cleavenger would target fundraising and expand Ragdale’s profile.

“Michael has joined Ragdale at this important and fascinating inflection point in its history as we grow the campus,” says Klein. “We hope with Michael’s leadership to complete our plans to transform the campus physically and enhance its great reputation as we continue to host and sponsor novelists, poets and others.”

The Sybil Shearer Dance Studio and an adjoining composer’s studio opened in September. Named for notable 1940s dancer Sybil Shearer, the 2,500-square-foot, light-filled building offers accessible residential studios for dancers, choreographers and musicians. The Northbrook-based Morrison-Shearer Foundation contributed $1.4 million to the $1.8 million project.

Later this year, Ragdale, in partnership with the City of Lake Forest, is acquiring the 1930s-era home to the north of the property, formerly belonging to the Hart family. Margie Hart was a painter herself and a devoted supporter of Ragdale events. As her home was originally part of Howard Van Doren Shaw’s Ragdale Farm, the Hart-Lansing family is generously donating a portion of the fair market value of the property. Once renovated, this new facility will house approximately five artists, bringing Ragdale’s residency capacity to 16. An accessible suite will be created on the first floor. “Accessibility is a priority for us at Ragdale,” says Cleavenger.

Beyond Ragdale’s campus, Cleavenger intends to expand the Ragdale in Schools programs targeted at exposing students in underserved Lake County school communities to art. Ragdale Fellows are matched with the needs of schools in onsite and offsite programs to encourage healthy self-expression, community engagement, cultural exchange, and career development. “We want kids to spend a Saturday here in the country with professional artists, experiencing what it is like to experiment with different artistic disciplines and learning that they are capable of creating meaningful art,” he explains.

He also hopes to invite artists of note who are visiting Chicago to spend time at Ragdale. “Artists benefit from taking breaks from time to time, to be restored and reenergized,” Cleavenger points out. “I hope to integrate Ragdale into the artistic community of Chicago and offer their artists our inspiring prairie, facilities and quiet to rest a while.”

Another priority at Ragdale is celebrating diversity. “Art is all-prevailing. It doesn’t segment out because of persuasion of any kind,” Cleavenger says. “At Ragdale, we have always accommodated the changing world and its artists through diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Cleavenger credits the Board of Trustees at Ragdale, the clear mission provided and the innate aura of the place with its success. Says he, “Ragdale is a magical place, blessed with highly dedicated partners who are working hard to make Ragdale a great asset for Lake Forest, the Chicago metro area and the nation as a whole.”