By Joseph Cappelletti
In 1910, Art Institute of Chicago artists Frederick Fursman and Walter Marshall Clute founded Ox-Bow in Saugatuck. Their goal was to create a haven for artists to escape the busy city life of Chicago. As Saugatuck and Ox-Bow grew over the years, the art school’s influence helped shape Saugatuck into the art town it is today.
Today, 108 years later, Ox-Bow is the oldest summer art school in the nation and Saugatuck is widely hailed as one of the best small art towns in America.
But most local visitors will leave without seeing Ox-Bow or any art produced on its campus. With more than a dozen art galleries in Saugatuck and Douglas, none associated with Ox-Bow, the art scenes at both seem to have grown distant.
Mike Andrews, academic director at the art school for eight years, was named the executive director last year, discussed the balance between Ox-Bow as an active art school and a place where locals and visitors can see up-and-coming artists in a unique location.
Ox-Bow’s beauty and historical significance often draws tourists and locals wanting to visit its campus. But the school is also a place where people pay to stay and learn. This has led to many signs telling people to stay out and turn around, leaving some non-students feeling Ox-bow isn’t welcoming or is exclusive.
“My priorities,” said Andrews, “are to make sure this is a place for students and resident artists to have great experiences. I also want to make this a place where people who live in the area can be part of it and feel they are welcome here.
“There are many stories of people who have lived here forever and never been to Ox-Bow. There’s a perception, “It’s not for me and I don’t belong there.’”
Andrews and his coworkers want people to know they are welcome on campus, but to be mindful and respectful of people living and working there.
Ox-Bow has worked to include the general public for events such as the summer Friday Night Open Studios, which are free to attend and are advertised in The Commercial Record.
In addition, this spring Ox-Bow hosted a free Sneak Peak exhibition, “an opportunity for the local community to get a preview of what is being planned for the summer,” according to its website.
“While we make lots of beautiful collectible things here,” said Andrews, “there’s also a lot of work specific to people who are intensely studying contemporary art, plus its issues and trends.
“There needs to be some type of a translation, because I am worried there will be a disconnect,” Andrews said.
“Saugatuck is a very particular market with a lot of great artists doing beautiful things, but there’s also the question of what isn’t here.”
“Contemporary art,” says the New York University Department of Art and Art Professionals, “is part of a cultural dialog that concerns larger contextual frameworks such as personal and cultural identity, family, community and nationality.”
As Ox-Bow students, with vibrant hair colors, eccentric fashion and tattoo-covered arms, look to address societal issues with a variety of mediums, their artwork can rarely be understood like a piece in commercial art galleries can be.
If you would like to learn more about upcoming Ox-Bow events or become more involved, visit ox-bow.org.