When Nancy Merkling says “all is going to be mind-blowing at The Dole,” she’s not exactly exaggerating. Change is happening rapidly at Crystal Lake’s Dole Mansion, and it’s breathing new life into a haven for the visual, culinary and performing arts.
Known until recently as Lakeside Arts Park, this historical property is undergoing far more than a branding update. Everything from the programming to the building are getting a new look as Merkling and Janet Kay take the reins as co-executive directors.
Merkling and Kay have maintained a photography studio at The Dole for seven years, so they’re intimately familiar with the architecture and the vibe that come along with this creative environment. But, what they’re now discovering is that it’s been too much of a well-kept secret.
“We know that if we’re going to come in and revamp this place and facilitate the necessary changes, we can’t just do a little bit,” says Merkling. “We have to trailblaze like crazy.”
And that’s just what they’re doing.
The Dole’s longstanding 1st Fridays event returns Oct. 4 and Dec. 6, but come January, it’ll morph into 2nd Fridays. As always, this event will focus on the community and education, with smaller solo shows from regional artists who will speak about their processes. Periodically, schoolchildren’s work will be on display. Look for additional elements next year, with things like poetry readings and artist lectures meant to engage hungry minds. The 1st and 2nd Friday events will maintain their encouraged $5 entrance donation.
On Oct. 25, The Dole welcomes an all-new occasion: 4th Fridays Art Event, a monthly one-night-only art opening Merkling launched in 2011. The event has long been a staple at Harvard’s Starline Factory; in its new home at The Dole, 4th Fridays will continue to deliver a juried art show with live music and a focus on building a healthy culture, developing regional artist relationships, and bringing art collectors and buyers through the door. Admission is $10.
“We have to have a high bar on 4th Fridays so we can bring in those who collect art,” says Merkling. “But it’s still kept in a fun environment so that we are welcoming all age groups.”
In 2020, expect to see new displays about every two weeks, something that’s sure to attract those who visit The Dole’s new “third space” – a place that’s part-coffee bar, part coworking space. Merkling envisions this will be a place to hang out, do some coworking, hold a quick meeting, grab a coffee, and feel inspired by the artwork. The space will soon be open on weekdays during business hours.
“In 2020, we want to add a barista and some food,” says Merkling.
Meanwhile, artist studios at The Dole will continue to attract creative people who need a dedicated place to work. Several rooms have been set aside for temporary rentals that can last anywhere from a few hours to a few months, as needed. Resident artists get a special edge following the two Friday art openings.
Expect more classes at The Dole’s professional-grade kitchen, too, where many area youngsters have learned to cook. Special classes for adults and kids are in the works.
“There’ll be Italian cooking nights for couples and we’ll have wine, and we could have parents learning to cook healthily for kids and teens,” says Merkling.
The Dole’s intimate performance space, ‘the Listening Room,’ is getting an expanded schedule that’s likely to tap into the Chicago area’s rich music scene – not to mention open mic nights and other community-driven entertainment.
This rich, artistically driven environment inspires creativity at every turn, from the historic mansion built in 1865 to its annex, built in 1925 as Crystal Lake’s first country club. Preservation and restoration work have been a central part of the organization’s mission.
“It’s crucial to The Dole’s team, and the continued success of the buildings, to renovate them in ways that will help our programs and events to grow,” says Merkling. “We’re going to have to pull the community in.”
The Dole’s annual gala, a progressive-style event, is set for Nov. 2 – which happens to be the 200th birthday of Charles Dole, the Chicago entrepreneur who established this property as a summer retreat in 1865. Tickets are $100 per person.
“We have our incredible designer, Joe Isacson, coming in to prepare the space, and he has some spectacular installations planned,” says Merkling.
Kick off the Christmas season during Winter Fest at The Dole on Dec. 6-7 with a host of fun family activities, including an ice skating rink, hot chocolate, indoor artists and vendors, and a visit from Santa.
If it feels like a lot is happening at The Dole, this is just a taste of what’s to come in the months ahead.
“We know that if you attend once, you’ll be back,” says Merkling. ❚
The Dole is located at 401 Country Club Road, Crystal Lake, (815) 455-8000.