HAVING GROWN UP IN Washington, D.C., Caroline Older enjoyed access to great arts institutions that the Smithsonian ensured were free and available to everyone. She was a frequent visitor to the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, which exhibited work by leading contemporary artists in the famous I.M. Pei building.
“I specifically remember an exhibit they had of the works of American abstract expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler,” recalls Older, with excitement. “The East Wing of the National Gallery has enormous walls that held her incredible canvasses. I remember being in awe of the size and scope of Frankenthaler’s abstract paintings.”
This deep appreciation for artists and art has never been more evident than right now, as Older settles into her new position as the Executive Director at Ragdale, the nonprofit artists’ community on the former country estate of architect Howard Van Doren Shaw.
“Ragdale is an incredible respite,” enthuses Older, who has taken on the role from outgoing Executive Director, Jeffrey Meeuwsen, who left Ragdale just prior to Older’s arrival.. “I didn’t understand that until I started working on the campus here. The vast prairie behind the historic house and the sounds of the birds rustling through the trees make it a nurturing and generative environment.”
And it is this environment, combined with giving artists of multiple disciplines the transformative time to work, that attracted Older to take on the prestigious position.
“What was so intriguing about Ragdale for me was that the residents stay here for three to four weeks at a time and build a deep sense of community through shared meals, conversations, and time and space,” she explains. “I also was impressed by the multi-disciplinary approach at Ragdale. From authors to composers to architects to designers, I know building community across disciplines will inspire artists and fuel their thinking in different ways. Finally, I was impressed by Ragdale’s engagement with Lake Forest and surrounding north shore communities through its Ragdale in Schools program and Ragdale Ring architectural competition and events.”
Older has not yet been able to witness the residency related camaraderie in person, as the institution continues to move forward very carefully in light of the ongoing health pandemic, but is enthusiastic about the online programming made available by Zoom and Ragdale’s YouTube channel.
It is the year 2020, after all.
In fact, Older says she is excited and amazed that 2020 led her to Ragdale. Prior to this, Older served for six years as the Executive Director of Chicago Artists Coalition. She brings with her over 25 years of leadership experience within the arts community, especially within the fundraising sector.
Throughout her career, she has brought that experience to significant arts organizations such as the Whitney Museum, the New York Botanical Garden, and the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she also served as Executive Director.
“I embrace the opportunity to lead smaller and midsize arts organizations, because you truly never stop learning,” reflects Older, who holds a B.A. in Art History from Williams College and a Ph.D. in the History of American Art from the University of California, Santa Barbara. “You wear a lot of hats in a position such as this, which keeps the work exciting and challenging with the end goal of making time for artists and supporting their work.”
“Her passion for the arts is something you can feel as soon as you meet her,” adds Jeanna Park, who serves as the President of Ragdale’s Board of Trustees. “She has always been committed to not only the arts, but the artists. She wants to nurture and support the next generation of artists, connecting students with artists and writers so they understand there are viable career opportunities available to them.”
Of course, Park admits that searching for an executive director for one of the oldest and largest artists’ communities in the country during a pandemic had its share of challenges. The search committee, working alongside Sheila Leahy of Lake Bluff-based SAL Consulting, began a nationwide search earlier this year. It quickly became evident that the position at Ragdale would be highly sought after.
“It was a nationwide search, and we received a very positive response from many high caliber candidates,” explains Park. “We did all of our interviews via Zoom which took a little adjustment for all of us. And since Ragdale is about to embark on some incredible campus-wide enhancements, we strongly feel Caroline has the perfect combination of skills to best guide us through this exciting time. We are fortunate to have her leading such a treasured organization in our community—she will be a great steward for artists now and coming in the next generations.”
Indeed, during a normal year, Ragdale hosts more than 200 creative practitioners from around the world and serves students and teachers from more than 60 regional schools.
In addition to continuing to promote Ragdale both regionally and nationally while strengthening its connection to Chicago, Older says she also looks forward to making the strategic moves that will best set up the arts institution and its historic campus for the future. One of those moves is the establishment of a new dance and composer studio building on the Ragdale property made possible with generous support from the Morrison-Shearer Foundation.
“Ragdale and the Morrsion-Shearer Foundation were working towards creating a new dance and composer studio long before I took the job,” explains Older, who currently resides with her family in River Forest. “But thinking about an organization making a serious investment at a time such as this, and about what that means for dance and music composition for the city and the north shore of Chicago— it is very impressive.”
“We are building two new studios beginning later this year during an unusually quiet time on campus, after receiving the largest gift to Ragdale since the founding of the organization,” adds Park. “These state-of-the-art studios will be a huge positive for incoming dancers and composers, and we are so grateful to the Morrison-Shearer Foundation.”
Ragdale continues to grow despite the uncertainty surrounding everything from the pandemic to politics to ongoing racial tensions, and Older sincerely believes that the pursuit of the arts has never been more important than they are right now.
“Now more than ever we need to continue to nurture the arts and give artists of all disciplines the time, space, and support needed to create their work,” Older concludes.
“The arts play a critically important role in making tangible what often can be intangible,” Older says quietly. “Authors can put concepts into words and make us think and feel differently. Artists can visualize concepts and discomfort and tensions, then make those things physically visible to us. As we address economic, racial, and health tensions, the arts continue to play a vital role in leading us and the nation forward.”