Original art on Main Street
On a hot September morning, I had the pleasure of meeting up with Sharon Boyles. Sharon has been The Loft on Main’s primary volunteer since the very beginning of the art gallery’s existence. Most of Main Street in Morrison, IL, was closed during my visit due to significant street construction. Luckily, it is almost finished.
Boyles was busy rearranging much of the gallery’s 1200 art pieces during the business slowdown. Yes, 1200 art pieces. She tries to keep the storefront window display filled with local artwork and tries to switch it up every two weeks or so.
This cozy gallery, complete with original store shelving and fixtures, and a charming loft, has become a cultural center for Morrison, which has always been a community that values the arts.
Boyles joined The Loft’s board in February of 2018, became its treasurer a few months later, and was juried in as an exhibiting artist in March 2018. She is an incredible mosaic fiber artist. During her “spare time” and, in particular, tax season, Boyles prepares people’s tax returns.
The Loft is open year-round. Regular hours are Thursday 10 a.m to 2 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If anyone is planning a visit and wants to come in on another day or time, call Sharon at 815-718-3682. She can be at the gallery within 30 minutes.
On the third Thursday of each month, they open earlier in the day to host “Coffee and Conversation” from 8-10 a.m. Volunteers bring in homemade treats and coffee to share. Starting this past July, community guests, such as the police chief, firefighters, and EMTs, were on the agenda to discuss their duties and anything new coming up that local citizens would be interested to learn.
It began with an idea and a need.
In February 2017, Kim Ewoldsen, the director of the Morrison Area Development Corporation (MADC) at the time, attended an event hosted by the Center for Governmental Studies at Northern Illinois University and Illinois Main Street. The event focused on municipalities using their local resources to build community.
Ewoldsen felt that one of Morrison’s resources was its rich history in the arts. In particular, Morrison’s annual community arts event, Paint the Town. This yearly event brings approximately 6,000 people to town.
NOTE: Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the event was canceled for 2020 and 2021.
Ewoldsen was also aware of several arts-based businesses and artists in the community. Once the “building community through art” idea was born, she worked with MADC to make it a reality by hosting a meeting In March 2017 to gauge interest in creating a retail arts center with space for art classes and possibly an artists’ workspace.
Ewoldsen discovered that artists didn’t want to sell at farmers’ markets, but they wanted a retail location where their art had a place to be shown and sold. The common theme was no single artist could afford a retail space on their own. Hence, the community resource became a shared retail location.
Following the meeting, she organized a steering committee of artists and community members dedicated to making an arts center a reality. After months of building tours and visiting other arts organizations, a local businessman, Josh West, who owns a building on Main Street, asked if the group would like to lease it for the arts center. He converted the top floor into a beautiful Airbnb, and it continues to operate as one to this day. As for the first floor and loft area, volunteers did every bit of the renovation work for the gallery.
A new art center is born.
The work took nine months, and in December of 2017, the new space, originally named Loft 112, opened to the public. In August 2018, Loft 112 received non-profit status and changed its name to The Loft on Main, NFP. By the end of 2018, MADC was no longer the overseer of the project. They were, as we shall say, on their own!
As of this writing, The Loft has 43 artist members. Each artist has their art reviewed by a group jury, and once approved, they pay a yearly fee to have their work shown and sold. All of the artists have local ties to the area. “Many live in Morrison or are within 30 minutes,” said Boyles. “Several are area graduates living elsewhere but still have family ties here. Some artists reside in places as far away as Costa Rica, California, and Georgia.”
The artist fees and a small commission percentage for any work sold help keep the doors to the center open. Another avenue of financial support comes from patron donors. The minimum amount to become a patron donor is $80 per couple or $50 per individual.
Arts collaboration with Woodlawn Arts Academy
Kim Ewoldsen was familiar with the quality of classes provided by Woodlawn Arts Academy in Sterling, IL. She spoke with Woodlawn’s executive director, Christy Zepezauer, regarding sharing The Loft’s back workspace area as a way of expanding Woodlawn’s class reach to western Whiteside County. The result was that several private music and group art classes were held on-site in Morrison but taught by staff from Woodlawn.
This working relationship is a win-win situation. The Loft provides the space, and Woodlawn provides the staff, class promotion, registration, and more.
Operating through a pandemic
Business came to a standstill for about three months in 2020--mid-March through Mid-May. When that happened, the gallery suffered from the loss of foot traffic and sales, resulting in the subsequent loss of artists, volunteers, and customers.
When The Loft on Main did reopen, it was only one day per week. At that time, the business canceled all indoor classes, gatherings, and fundraising events. Regular business hours didn’t return until December 2020.
“As measures were loosening, we started seeing business and interest pick up. We resumed some indoor activities, but the Main Street reconstruction project started, and many people decided to avoid coming into town. We will soon have a smooth street to drive and park on and beautiful new sidewalks, but due to the resurgence of COVID, we cannot return to business as usual yet,” said Boyles.
Masks currently are required when entering and browsing the venue--per Illinois mandate.
It’s all about the volunteers.
There is no paid staff at The Loft on Main. It operates on volunteer power. The store currently staffs five volunteers, two of which are part of the nine-member board. Boyles shared that the exact number of volunteers is unknown, as many people step up to help when needed. There are 19 that regularly help with quite a bit of overlap of duties. Five additional volunteers help with the electronic distribution of information. Rounding up this hearty bunch are two volunteers who help with technology.
Beyond those mentioned, The Loft has volunteers for jurying, cleaning, photographing, rearranging, designing, planning special events, making coffee and treats, teaching classes, and performing light maintenance.
As The Loft runs on an entirely volunteer basis, it won the Governor’s Hometown Award in 2018, its first year of existence. The Governor’s Hometown Awards, first presented in 1983, are given annually to projects sponsored by local government but brought to fruition by solid volunteer support.
While visiting the gallery
The downtown area has several specialties retails shops, including the recently opened Double G Saloon (serves breakfast!) and The Blue Violet floral and gift shop. Both of these new businesses are across the street from The Loft. In fact, The Blue Violet had its ribbon-cutting ceremony as Sharon and I were talking.
HOURS | Open year-round.
Thursdays: 10 a.m to 2 p.m.
Fridays and Saturdays: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
By appointment, call 815-718-3682.
The Loft on Main
112 E. Main St.
Morrison, IL. 61270