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Evolution of the South Haven Center for the Arts

Updated: May 24, 2022

By Nancy Albright

From artists meeting in private homes and churches to 600 Phoenix St., the South Haven Center for the Arts has a long-standing tradition of sharing art with the community beginning in 1951 with a group of women who worked together to form an art league “for the purpose of giving South Haven an annual art exhibit.”

The American Association of University Women sponsored the formation of the South Haven Art League, and the original charter was adopted on March 15, 1951. Mrs. Natalie S. Federsen was elected Chairman of the Board. Serving alongside Mrs. Federsen were Alternate Chairman Mrs. E. R. Shoop, Recording Secretary Mrs. George Corliss, Corresponding Secretary Mrs. Kathryne Everson, Treasurer Mrs. Albert Labz, and Registrar Mrs. Marshall Mackey. Mrs. Neil Goodrich, Mrs. Robert Anderson, Mrs. June Gale, Mrs. Frank Chaddock, Mrs. Horace Brown, and Mrs. John C. Kerr served on various League committees.

There were 18 charter members, and as of May 12, 1951 there were twenty-eight Art League members, including three men: Mr. Harry Liens, Mr. Donald Anderson, and Dr. John Kleber, which was notable at the time. Art League membership dues were $1.00 per year.

Early Exhibitions

The Art League put out a call for entries for its 1st Annual Indoor Exhibit, held at Oddfellows Hall, 304 ½ Broadway, May 18–20, 1951. (The entry fee for artist work was $1.00.)

The Friday evening preview was for artists and members, and the public was invited to view the exhibition on Saturday and Sunday. That first exhibit contained 25 pieces, and Mrs. John (Pat) Dagget was the youngest exhibitor. Retired art teachers Neil and Mrs. Goodrich exhibited, and Dr. Kleber exhibited two painted Chinese figurines. Included were paintings by Mrs. Federsen and Mr. Donald Anderson; both having won awards at a recent art exhibit in St. Joseph for their artwork.

Twenty-seven artists exhibited 58 paintings at the 2nd Annual Indoor Exhibition in 1952. The exhibit contained “not only paintings, but ceramic pieces and sculpture work and any media.” There were many paintings of South Haven scenes in the exhibition. Among the artists were Esther Warshawsky, Neil Goodrich, Geraldine and Hazel Kerr, and Pat and Martha Daggett. (In 1905, Herb Daggett and his team of sixteen horses dragged a Civil War cannon up the hill from the Black River to the lawn of the newly constructed Carnegie Library.) [Link]

For the next four decades the Art League exhibited at various venues in town, including Oddfellows Hall, City Hall, Church of the Epiphany, First Congregational Church, the Aldo Hotel, the South Haven Yacht Club, and the South Haven Carnegie Library.

Exhibition catalogues from 1956 and 1957 (top). Bottom left, Marvin Haney of Bangor explains his painting technique to Mrs. Don Barden of South Haven. Right, Blue Ribbon winner of the 14th Annual Indoor Exhibition (1964) Mrs. Jack Brandel with, from left, South Haven Art League Board President Robert Fleming, and Dr. Michael Waskowsky, Chairman of the Arts Department at Kalamazoo College, who judged the exhibition. Other Blue Ribbon winners that year were A. H. Guunarson of Bangor, and Florine Hester, Erma Everhart, and Frieda Fedore of South Haven.

Glenda Johnson (left) won Best of Show in 1967 at the Art League's 17th Annual Exhibition. Artist Fran Larsen and her son Teddy (center) with her painting in 1967. Fran is still a member of the South Haven Center for the Arts and last exhibited at the art center in 2017. "Coming Home" featured the work of five South Haven artists who moved to various parts of the country during their lifetimes, and continue to create artwork today.

In July 1958, the Art League held its first outdoor exhibition—The Clothesline Art Exhibit—where “an enthusiastic crowd of amateur art critics flocked to Dyckman Park to inspect more than 300 artworks by local artists.” Artists from Southwest Michigan and those from as far away as New York City also exhibited that day. According to the South Haven Daily Tribune, a large crowd assembled prior to opening the fair when “passersby stopped to watch the setting up. A gay holiday atmosphere was provided by colorful lawn furniture and umbrellas loaned by Wank’s Furniture Store.”

Robert Fleming (right) enjoying the 1st Annual Clothesline Art Exhibit in 1958. Fleming was Art League President from 1963 to 1964. Fleming's wife was president from 1957 to 1958. Robert studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and founded the Bangor Art School where he was director and teacher. Among Fleming's students were Florine Hester and Arlene Schiele. Scheile was Art League President in 1956, and Hester in 1962. Fleming is pictured with Gerald Macklem of South Haven, and John Kerr of Columbus, Ohio. John was the guest of Mrs. Hazel Kerr, who was Board President in 1959.

Admirers of artists' work, circa 1966. What began as the Clothesline Art Exhibit in 1957 (one news source reported that there were few actual clotheslines) transitioned to the Art League's Annual Outdoor Exhibition sometime in the 1960s. After the first exhibit in 1957, Art League Publicity Director Mrs. Grace Haines commented that the show had been so successful it would be "repeated annually.” Today we know the event as the South Haven Art Fair. [LINK: Learn more about Art Fair.]

A Home for Artists and the Arts

Still without a permanent exhibition space—the organization had met in private homes and churches since its inception—the Art League continued to hold annual exhibitions and the art fair, as well as art classes, musical performances, and other cultural events.

The South Haven Memorial Library was built across the street at 300 Broadway in 1959. The South Haven City Council retained sole ownership of the old [Link: Carnegie Library] and allocated $3,000 for its use as a community center.

The building was abandoned in the 1970s and then sat empty until the early 1980s, when the city contemplated demolishing US steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s 1905 gift to the City of South Haven. The Art League—now the South Haven Art Association—understood the value of the historic building and asked the city to lease it to the organization to save it from the wrecking ball.

Art Schewe was instrumental in acquiring the old library in 1984. Eventually, the city agreed to lease the building at 602 Phoenix St. to the Art Association for $1.00 per year for 20 years. The lease was signed on February 23, 1984, and the rescue was underway.

The Art Association set out to restore the Neoclassic Revival structure to its former glory with a renovation project that would end up lasting six years. The renovation was an enormous undertaking, and without the help of artists, members, volunteers, local tradesmen and businesses, the city, the community at large, and others, the grand building may well have been lost. At that time, the Art Association had only $25 in the treasury. Membership dues were increased to $10 per year, which were used as operating funds.

In addition to private and corporate donations, the Art Association held community fundraisers such art auctions, performing arts events, and the art fair to raise money for the renovation. That year, the art center set up a donation booth at the fair and sold T-shirts featuring the art center logo. Monies were received from the City of South Haven, the Michigan Council for the Arts (now the Michigan Council for Arts & Cultural Affairs) granted $1,500, and the Art Association received a $50,000 equity grant from the State of Michigan. Twenty-thousand dollars of the state grant was used to renovate the first floor. The Association also raised $6,000, and procured $6,000 of donated materials and services to transform the “gray downstairs into an attractive, spacious gallery.”

The Art Association hired Dar Davis, then director of the Krasl Art Center in St. Joseph, to guide the renovation and help with plans for remodeling and obtaining additional funding. The interior renovation began in the spring of 1987 with the help of many, including Vern Adkin, who is rumored to have had great fun recording the whole operation for viewing on his new Betamax.

The 1908s renovation began with the first floor gallery, which had originally been used by the G. A. R. in exchange for donation of the land for the library in 1905.

The original tiled floor was replaced with maple and the walls and exposed pipes were plastered. Jack-of-all-trades Al Weener cut the arch into the wall leading to the gallery for easier access from the foyer. (The foyer is still tiled with the original terrazzo tiles laid in 1905.) The gallery was lit with lighting designed by [find that well-known guy’s name]. The kitchenette and office were upgraded, and they created a gallery shop that would feature the artwork of local and out-of-town artists. The heavy renovations were done by Rick Johnson Builders, and Jim Foley of the Foley Construction Co. installed the new kitchen.

Board member Kent Olberg helped resurface the first floor walls and ceiling. Prior to Al Weener's cutting the arch, visitors walked through the side hall and entered the gallery through a door in the east wall.

Despite cracked plaster and peeling paint on the second floor of the art center, the Art Association held the 33th Annual Indoor Art Exhibit in the first floor gallery that spring. That summer, the paintings and drawings of Susan B. Siegal of Kalamazoo were exhibited, and life drawing and oil painting classes were held on the in-progress second floor, as well as mini-art classes for children ages three through six.

The renovation project was led by South Haven Center for the Arts' Board President Persis Fassen, then Director and Manager of the Art and Design Center, an artist cooperative in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

South Haven Center for the Arts' Board President Persis Faasen hanging the 33rd Annual Spring Exhibition, the first show at the renovated library.

The art center held a Halloween fundraising event

Bit about the Haunted Halloween fundraising event that fall (made a lot of money) [images] Persis dancing in costume, giant masks on exterior]

The exterior restoration began in the summer of 1989, which included sandblasting the stone on the north and west walls, tuckpointing the brick on the south and east walls, patching the roof, replacing the front and side doors, and landscaping the lawn.

Funded by the City of South