60TH ANNIVERSARY OF SOUTH SHORE ART CENTER
When loving hearts, willing hands and generous contributions get together just about anything is possible. So it is with the South Shore Art Center in Cohasset, which is celebrating its 60th birthday surrounded by friends and supporters, new and old, who over the decades have created a home in which to display and create wonderful art, that, in turn, inspires all who come to see it.
The art that flourishes there is diverse and provocative, ever changing in style and influence over the years, as the center increasingly has attracted artists from far beyond the South Shore. That probably would surprise the group of artists who—before there was a center—mostly lived in town, met in each other’s homes and barns, and were motivated to a great extent by the magnificent ocean vistas that surrounded them.
But, by the mid-50s, a phalanx was coalescing around the idea that a permanent place should be created where artists could gather to further their talents. And, so began an odyssey through Cohasset, as a growing group of supporters, moved the center from space to space, until 1970 when they landed in what was called the Flatiron Building, at 103 Ripley Road. A year later they bought the building, where they remained until 1987.
Chris Rifkin knows this history well because she has been part of the local art scene since high school, due in large part to the influence of her mother, Dorothy Laney, who had moved her family to Cohasset in the first place, “Because she was interested in art and there was more art activity here than in other South Shore Towns,” says Rifkin.
Laney went on to become a strong proponent of an art center and was one of the keys to its becoming a reality.
Rifkin, an artist herself and strong supporter of other artists, whose stunning and varied works fill her Hingham home, has been involved with the center since early days and had much to do, along with Shirley Neer, Tom Hamilton and others, with the move to the current building at 119 Ripley Road. Her dedication to the SSAC continues, as evidenced by the show currently on view there. Curated by Rifkin and called Dynamic Conversations, it includes highly-imaginative and gorgeous pieces of craft furniture along with a fascinating selection of two-dimensional works.
But Rifkin’s vision for the SSAC extends far beyond July 12, when the show closes. She talks about wishing to increase classroom space by moving some of the center’s activities to a nearby building, to free up much needed space at 119 Ripley. Further down the road she sees the center evolving into a cultural district, which could make it possible to reach out to more than the 46 South Shore towns currently being served.
To make all that happen, Rifkin has on her to-do list the creation of an endowment for the center.
Because, as she knows better than most, for art to flourish, more than talent and dedication are needed. Numerous revenue streams have to be created, which, at the center include memberships, grants, fundraisers and its wildly popular arts festival, held every summer on Cohasset Common. While all those sources are vital to its continuing success, at least a third of the SSAC’s revenue comes from a more unsung source, the many classes that are held year-round, inside and outside the center.
The two people responsible for this phenomenally successful program are Tony Pilla, Education Coordinator, and Heather Collins, Director of Community Programs. Together they oversee classes in all media designed for both area school children and adults of all ages, whose abilities range from beginner to professional.
Of special pride to Pilla and Collins is an event that focuses attention on extremely talented high school students. Called Art Stars it is a centerpiece of the summer arts festival, for which teachers from many area schools select a handful of students to take part in a collaborative project that is always amazing. Last year it was a huge sculptural work, composed of many parts made out of corrugated cardboard. This year it will be several huge and colorful panels, celebrating the center’s 60th birthday. These will be installed on the back side of the building. Facing railroad tracks, they will present an exciting panorama of color and movement for those lucky enough to be on a train rushing through town.
Most folks who go to the center to create or appreciate art are familiar with its friendly receptionist, busy studios and handsome galleries. But most don’t venture into a small room tucked behind a counter on the first floor. If they did, they’d be surprised by the number of people who fit in there, all congenially busy with the business of the center.
Next door to this industrious crew is the office of the center’s executive director, Sarah Hannan, who has been in that position for 14 years, and involved with the center since 1996. Since she’s only the sixth person in 60 years to run the operation, one could come to the conclusion that the longevity of its directors is a key to its success.
For Hannan, it’s not surprising that most of the directors put in at least a decade on the job. “It takes a year just to learn what the festival is all about,” she explains. An art history major in college, she is not a working artist herself. Rather, she adds “I’m an art appreciator,” which is probably the most important characteristic she could have for this position. That’s evident when she enthusiastically describes how the SSAC has evolved over the past 20 years.
“Our exhibitions have risen to professional levels. We now have terrific visiting artists. The classes have grown so much that there’s always competition for time among the teachers.” Then, there’s the festival, which is as old as the center itself and always eagerly anticipated. “It is our signature event,” Hannan says.
And, like everything else at the South Shore Art Center, “It is a labor of love.”
50th Anniversary—South Shore Art Center History by Mary Sheppard
The South Shore Art Center was organized some fifty-five years ago by artists wanting to share their work and provide art education through classes. Although located in Cohasset, the South Shore Art Center exists for the artists and communities encompasing the entire South Shore.
Our mission statement reads:
The mission of the South Shore Art Center is to enrich the communities south of Boston by fostering an understanding and appreciation of the visual arts through exhibitions and education.
In the 1950s, the artist community on the South Shore of Boston was a small, rural world, comprised of artists who lived in a paradise of coastal countryside and gathered to paint and exchange ideas in barns, homes, and library basements.
According to Isobel Grassie, a former director, Tom Lucas and MacIvor Reddie had their paintings propped against trees or on easels on Cohasset Common to sell when Helen Howe Vosoff appeared and expressed interest in their work. Tom Lucas was teaching art classes at Cohasset High School and MacIvor Reddie was a local landscaper and painter. Helen Vosoff, Cohasset born, was the first president of the new South Shore Playhouse Associates, organized in the early 1950s as a financial sponsor of the South Shore Music Circus and the Melody Tent on Cape Cod. A long discussion among the three ensued and they decided to form an art center in Cohasset, which would be sponsored by the Playhouse Associates.
By the fall of 1955, a definite group of interested people began to form plans and committees. The initial three, Lucas, Reddie, and Vosoff, were at the helm and as others joined the association, job categories were assigned.
On October 14, 1955, the Art Center settled into its first home at 15 Brook Street. The fee for an active membership of the South Shore Art Center was $2 and class fees ranged between $15 and $20. Fifteen people were registered for classes and one person had signed up to become an active member. One year later, there would be 110 students and 100 active members.
In 1956, the first Annual South Shore Arts Festival was held on Cohasset Common. Two founding Art Center members, Ros Farbush, who has taught at the Center for over 40 years and is a well-known and respected painter, and Genevieve Good, a prominent member of both the South Shore Art Center and South Shore Playhouse, remember that first festival well. They have memories of a simple display: clotheslines strung on the Common between trees with artwork pinned to them, artwork resting on ten or so easels and leaning against trees, and painters who stayed and answered questions. Charles Demetropoulos, a painter from Boston who taught at the Art Center, painted the scene of this first Festival and depicted its simplicity.
In February 1957, a defective heater caused a fire at 15 Brook Street and shut down all activities. At this time, Art Center classes and its membership had grown and it was apparent that more space was needed. The old Cohasset Savings Bank across the street had vacant space on the second floor and Osbourne Ingram, President, invited the Art Center to rent it. The space was larger than what the Center had and the Board accepted. The bank building would remain the Art Center’s home until 1971, during which time the Center continued to expand.
In 1958, the South Shore Art Center became incorporated as a nonprofit organization and its bylaws were set in place. They read: “to acquire, develop, maintain and operate facilities for conducting artists activities for the communities of the South Shore; to provide space for, arrange and supervise classes in painting, drawing, sculpture, crafts and other allied arts; to plan and execute exhibits, displays, festivals, lectures, demonstrations and social functions to promote interest in and knowledge of these artistic fields.”
By 1959, the interest in the Art Center was declining and a South Shore ‘Do or Die’ meeting was scheduled. Dorothy (Dottie) Laney had just moved to town, choosing Cohasset over other towns to raise her family, in part because it had an art center. The mother of five attended the meeting that night, along with Isobel Grassie, who was the Art Center director at the time, Tom Lucas, Denise Ripley, and Alice Nisula. To keep the Art Center running, everyone took on more responsibility. Dottie Laney became the PR person, even though she’d never written a newspaper article. Her articles announced and described the various exhibitions and educational opportunities available to the public. Art openings were always on Sunday afternoons and Dottie took on hostess duties, serving cookies and punch to the public. Through the efforts of all those involved, the interest and participation in the South Shore’s first privately established art association was revived.
In the early to mid-sixties, the South Shore Art Center was described as a relatively small, low-key organization. Meetings and classes were held on the second floor of the bank building and Tom Lucas conducted art classes in his small, red barn across from the harbor. Cohasset was social, and filled with interesting people who were members of the Art Center. Fundraisers such as the Beaux Arts Ball, a headdress dinner and dance, and art auctions where Art Center members donated their work, helped with Center operating costs and provided a fun social life for those connected with the Art Center.
In 1965, Christus Murphy became president of the Center’s board of directors. Murphy remembers the Art Festivals of that era as being elegant affairs, with the pureness and appreciation of the arts, no commercialism. The three shows, juried, members, and invitational, were large and held under striped tents. During Festival, a floral show took place in Town Hall or a designated place near the Common.
The Annual Arts Festival, was held in June and its results were given in an Annual Report to the Board. It began with the fiscal success of the Festival, then moved into the show artistically. The numerous turbulent events that occurred in the nation in 1968 prompted David Kelley to suggest an invitational show theme entitled “Art and Revolution”. The Festival poster, created by David Walsh, a later board president, features a fist of power. So encouraged to make a definite contemporary statement, entries exhibited how art is affected by revolution. The show was condemned, misunderstood, and considered radical. Many people did not appreciate it in its proper context, David stated eloquently in his report. He also remarked that he would not hesitate to make contemporary statements of a similar nature in the future.
Classes at the Center were on the rise with more variety, better attendance and an increase in membership. Dues were increased to keep up with inflation and rising operating costs. David Kelley proposed hiring a full time paid executive director and finding a permanent home for the South Shore Art Center before he resigned in 1969.
In 1970, the Cohasset Savings Bank wanted to expand their own facilities and the South Shore Art Center moved their offices temporarily to 110 Ripley Road, in a building formerly owned by Cohasset Buick.
One year later, in 1971, through fundraising efforts, the Art Center purchased the Flatiron Building at 103 Ripley Road. David Walsh was president of the board and Valerie Rever was the executive director. The Flatiron Building, or wedge building, provided the Art Center with a home until 1987. Despite the physical limitation of space, the Center accommodated a steady schedule of classes. Virginia Allen, a noted painter and member of the exhibition committee, joined the Art Center in 1968. She recalls the building’s slanted floors and low ceilings on the second floor where the two studios were located. On the first floor was an old wood stove. A painting of the stove, painted by Virginia and judged by Berj Kalian, won Best in Show in Watercolors in the last competition arranged in the wedge building.
Margaret Dillon, a member of the South Shore Art Center before she moved to Cohasset, was instrumental in procuring the Flatiron Building as the Art Center’s new home. A board member from 1973 until 1976, Margaret was also hired at that time to be the gallery coordinator for a new gallery in the Art Center that would exhibit continuous showings of work by artists who were members of the gallery. Margaret then took on the role of Art Center executive director and over twelve years in that position, was an effective change maker. According to Ros Farbush, Margaret Dillon was that rare person who understood artists as well as business. She was forceful, creative, and enthusiastic.
In 1978, with Margaret Dillon as executive director, and Serena Green, Nancy Connolly, Connie Pratt, and Berj Kalian as teachers, the environment in the wedge building was supportive and creative. The group met every couple of months and discussed developing a satellite program to bring Art Center classes to public school students on the South Shore. Their idea was to expose the children to the arts offered at the Center through the program to raise interest in attending Art Center classes.
Margaret Dillon’s hiring of Penny Redfield as the new Education Director became a turning point in the area of the children’s program at the Art Center. Penny gained the trust and support of the board and teachers and implemented a satellite program of Drop-In Workshops wherein teachers rotated weekly. Cohasset’s outreach program was through its public schools while other towns held workshops in convenient locations such as the South Shore Conservatory, the Hull Life Saving Museum, the Trinitarian Church in North Scituate, the Beachwood Community Life Center in Quincy, and the Old South Union Church in Weymouth. Student involvement and enthusiasm fueled the teachers’ commitment to the satellite program and the outreach program became a permanent fixture at the South Shore Art Center.
The establishment of the South Shore Art Center’s Outreach Program in the 1980s and ’90s began to provide added exposure and natural growth to the children’s program. In following years, it also proved to be a sturdy launching pad for Education Directors after Penny Redfield.
By the 1980s, it was again apparent that the South Shore Art Center had outgrown its space. Sheldon Ripley, who was president of the board from 1983 until 1985, became instrumental in the search for the Art Center’s new home. When the search ended at 119 Ripley Road, $950,000 was needed to purchase the land and erect a building that would be custom-designed for the triangular space. In 1983 board member, Shirley Neer, became the chairperson of the Capital Campaign to raise one million dollars. Chris Rifkin remembers the ‘dog and pony show’ she and board member, Tom Hamilton, ‘took on the road’. They addressed business and community groups all over the South Shore, using brochures, charts, figures, and mailings to stir up interest in funding the proposed new Center. The campaign committee raised $935,000, the land was purchased and the building was erected in 1987, giving the Art Center more than double its previous space in the Flatiron Building. The Bancroft Gallery was built with a soaring ceiling and superior acoustics, where today exhibitions and opening receptions take place throughout the year.
Soon after moving into the new building, two Art Center leaders who had pushed the organization into the new era passed away within a year of each other—Margaret Dillon and Shirley Neer. Joan Jensen stepped in as acting director, while a search committee was formed.
In 1988, Chris Rifkin took over Shirley Neer’s position as president of the board of directors. Chris’s association with the South Shore Art Center began as a child. Her mother, Dottie Laney, had been the Center’s first public relations director and thereafter, an Art Center member that could always be counted on when Center needs arose. She had also been an enthusiastic art student when the Art Center was housed in the bank building. By 1988, Chris too had become an essential pair of hands whenever and wherever needed
Chris remembers in particular the South Shore Art Center’s 35th Annual Art Festival in 1990. Six weeks before the weekend of the Festival, the chairperson left abruptly, without any preparations or plans for Festival made. Chris, not wanting to break the continuity of the annual event or risk losing the Center’s future place on the Common, took over Festival preparations. She managed to organize the annual juried show, a juried photography show, the Patriot Ledger’s award program for Art in the Schools, and a members show. A gala reception and the President’s Choice Exhibition featuring Kay Brown was held. There were no craft booths. It was pure art. Although the profits from the Festival that year only amounted to $600, the annual Festival event had been saved.
Lanci Valentine became executive director of the Art Center in 1987. Lanci considers artists some of her favorite people because of the different way they look at life. Her father, Ture Bengtz, was a painter and had been head of the drawing and graphics art department at the Museum of Fine Arts for 39 years.
When Lanci took over her position, the Art Center was carrying a $335,000 mortgage and an annual operating budget of $300,000, a huge leap from the $50 a day it cost to operate the Flatiron Building. Lanci’s first goal was to pay off the mortgage. With a pledge of $100,000 over four years from Jane Cook and a ‘Burn the Mortgage’ campaign drive that included matchbooks in community mailings, the Center’s goal was reached, with thousands of dollars in donations and pledges. A well-publicized celebration ensued during which the mortgage was officially burned in front of a cheering crowd. It was a great moment for the Art Center.
The South Shore Art Center began to garner renewed community interest during Lanci’s directorship. The Art Center bustled with activity. People enjoyed the atmosphere because Lanci and her staff had created a friendly, welcoming aura. The special events committee became active again. Volunteers were plentiful for these events and they helped with decorating and invitations. Lanci felt this was even more valuable than the money the event raised.
By 1989, the Art Center membership was 1,000 and class attendance was up 42%. Lectures, workshops, artist demonstrations and opportunities to travel and work with fellow artists were offered at the Center, as well as trips to view special exhibits in museums and galleries. Scholarships were awarded to artists who were returning to the field and to deserving high school seniors accepted at accredited art schools. Further accomplishments were the exhibitions in the two main galleries which included work by invited artists, gallery artists, group shows and members’ exhibits, and juried regional exhibits, while major exhibits of Art Center artists were arranged periodically at other locations. Yet, most important to Lanci was the excitement and enthusiasm of the students bounding up the Center’s stairs to classes and their exhaustion when leaving, evidence of being inspired to give to the class all the energy and focus that they had
In 1996, Suzan Redgate became president of the board of directors. Bringing her natural leadership skills and enthusiasm to the position, Suzan became instrumental in many changes that took place during her term in office, including restyling the Art Center logo. Suzan wanted an image in print that looked as good as the art that hung on its walls. The new style gave the Art Center a more professional look.
Her next focus was to assess the artisans who rented booths at the South Shore Art Festival each year. Her goal was to improve the quality of the items sold and to make sure they were created by the artist that was standing in the booth. In raising the quality of the craft art, Suzan also established a juried craft show that has now become part of the Festival.
Suzan felt it important for the Art Center to be reaching out to a greater constituency in the art community and, along with members’ work, to show acknowledgement and support of their work by exhibiting it. With Nancy Cusack, Suzan created a schedule that incorporated local, regional and national artists. In doing so, the Art Center was now able to command jurists on a national level, thereby improving its stature and professionalism as a community arts center.
In 1997, Dillon Bustin became the Art Center’s executive director. With a background in community arts and education, Dillon felt comfortable taking over the Art Center as a community arts institution. Where historically, the Center’s visual arts focus was on fine arts, Dillon felt that the conservative South Shore Art Center should expand its visual arts focus. He brought with him his passion for folklore art, specifically, the original art of indigenous North Americans, and curated the two shows, Day of the Dead in the Dillon Gallery and Hands of The Ancestors in the Bancroft Gallery.
Where Hands of The Ancestors was a celebration of Native American art and culture, the Day of the Dead exhibit celebrated the ritual in Mexico that is equivalent to Halloween. According to Dillon, Tom Lucas, who spent a great deal of time in Mexico, painting, embraced his show and joined him in the ritual of decorating graves with chrysanthemums, extending an invitation to others to do the same. In praise of these two shows, Suzan Redgate described them as multi-disciplined with speakers, lectures, musicians, workshops, crafts, and works on paper, representative of work the South Shore Art Center was proud to exhibit.
The South Shore Art Center’s education department has experienced an explosion of growth in the children’s program, which today offers three outreach programs. The first two, Looking at Art and Arts to Go, was developed by former staff member and professional art educator, Allison Moskow, who believed that children benefit from an art education because it enriches their lives and their look at the world. Allison tailored the programs to meet the needs of school and community organizations. Both programs are offered at no profit to South Shore schools, community groups, scouting troops, and special needs groups.
Looking at Art brings children into the Art Center and includes a gallery tour and a hands-on art activity conducted by a teaching artist. Students are encouraged to share their reactions and opinions with the group while learning visual arts concepts. The Art Center works with schoolteachers in advance to create a two-hour curriculum-oriented art education experience.
Arts to Go, initially underwritten by the Harold Brooks Foundation, is an arts enrichment program, brought into school classrooms and consists of an art history slide presentation, followed by a hands-on project also led by a teaching artist. Created to enhance academic areas of study, the history and cultures discussed vary from Colonial American History and Chinese History to the History of Photography.
Continuing today, Heather Collins, the Community Programs Manager since 1998, has made exposure to the children’s programs on the South Shore her first priority. According to Heather, there is always an awareness of need for the Art Center to reach beyond the immediate community. It is also her feeling that in order to ensure people’s interest in the arts, it is necessary to cast the Art Center’s net as widely as possible. Working directly with the teachers in the schools on the South Shore has proven to be an effective avenue to ensure this interest.
In addition to the established programs, Heather Collins and volunteer Libby Allard have instituted an additional community outreach program at the Art Center. The Artist in Residence Program, funded by corporate sponsor, Rockland Trust Company, is offered to South Shore school grades 3, 4, and 5 at no cost, and will provide students an opportunity to meet a working artist, tour his/her studio on videotape, and participate in a silkscreen workshop.
Nancy Cusack assumed the position of president of the board of directors in 2001. Nancy brought to the position the desire to aspire to a gallery of expanded visual arts. She describes the Art Center as an art association that has finally begun to take on its name as membership and educational interests and participation continues to increase across South Shore towns. Despite this growth, the nonprofit Art Center, to be considered eligible for philanthropic funding, must continue to expand further as cutbacks also continue to expand.
In working with the exhibition committee, Nancy helped to create an exhibition program which includes one high-end international show a year and two fee-based national calls for entry shows with major jurors of national reputation. The two national shows covered their own expenses and provided a means in which the Art Center could cover the expenses of its other non-juried local shows. The South Shore Art Center began to enjoy a certain status and recognition that it was not able to achieve before. International artists proudly displayed their work in the Center galleries, the Center’s own gallery artists entered their work and many times, enhanced their own portfolios. The result of the Center’s expanded programs has distinguished it with a new level of sophistication and integrity.
Sarah Hannan, current executive director of the South Shore Art Center, began her experience as the Center’s program director thus giving her familiarity with essential aspects of the organizations needs. As a result, several of her long term goals are to have an established endowment that increases each year, exhibitions routinely reviewed in national publications, visiting artists who draw students from across the country, and more satellite teaching and exhibition spaces.
Currently, there are over 1,200 members and the Center offers a year-round curriculum of courses and workshops for over 1,500 beginning and advanced students in everything from basic drawing to master workshops.
Two satellite galleries provide additional exhibition space for Gallery Artists: the South Shore Conservatory Gallery in Hingham, and the Paul Pratt Library in Cohasset.