Embracing a New Attitude at The Dole

As new leadership infuses a new energy at Crystal Lake’s arts park, everything is changing in pursuit of a newly inspired mission.

The Dole Mansion in Crystal Lake embraces the arts in many aspects, with programming and spaces to show off the visual, performing and culinary arts.

When Nancy Merkling says “things are changing every day at The Dole,” she’s not exactly exaggerating. Transformation is happening rapidly at Crystal Lake’s Dole Mansion, 401 Country Club Road, and it’s breathing new life into a space that’s long been 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.

The pair have maintained a photography studio at The Dole for the past seven years, so they’re intimately familiar with the beautiful architecture and the creative vibe that come along with this inspiring environment. But, what they’re only 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.

Since late summer, the team behind The Dole has been hard at work transforming the arts experience inside.

The Dole’s longstanding 1st Fridays event is out, having been replaced by an all-new occasion: 4th Fridays Art Event, a monthly one-night-only art opening that Merkling launched in 2011. 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 through development of regional artist relationships while 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.”

The next show, happening Jan. 24, includes a mixed media juried art exhibit as well as a solo show by local photographer William Skip Boyd and a 4th Fridays signature photo contest.

While regional performers Trinadora and Michal VanDyke play in the main floor galleries, guitarist Nicole Nystrom performs in the mansion’s second floor. Until just this fall, the mansion’s upper floors had been mostly closed to the public. Merkling eagerly encourages visitors to tour upstairs.

January’s show also brings a new program called Artist Connects. The scaled-down exhibit shows a local artist’s creative process and personal insights, as they answer 10 questions about their methods to anyone who asks.

Unlike past 4th Fridays, which were one-day-only events, January’s display will stand for two or more weeks – something that’s already attracting new kinds of art buyers.

“We sold two pieces of art during our fundraiser soiree in November,” says Merkling. “I had somebody coming up saying, ‘I’ve got two pieces of art I want to buy from the mansion’s first floor. Can I do that?’ You bet. They connected to the art, looked at the price and said, sell it to me. We sent it home with them that night.”

There are still more ways to connect with The Dole’s art. The public is now invited to visit The Dole every Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., as part of the new “Third Space” – a place designed to be part coffee bar, part coworking space. Merkling envisons this will be a place to hang out, do some coworking, hold a quick meeting, grab a coffee, and feel inspired by the artwork all around. Plans are underway for a local coffee shop to provide services sometime in the spring.

“We want to share these buildings, their history, their richness, and that feeling people get when they walk in,” says Merkling. “They tell us there’s such a good energy in here, and that’s great – that’s what we’re shooting for. We say it’s ‘our Dole,’ but we want it to be your Dole, too.”

Indeed, other people do work here almost daily, inside dozens of artist studios that continue to attract creative people who need a dedicated place to work. Some studios are being 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 during 4th Friday art openings.

Expect more classes at The Dole’s professional-grade kitchen, too, where many area youngsters have learned to cook with their Scouting troop. Special classes for adults and kids are in the works.

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 spoken word nights, comedy and other community-driven entertainment. Starting Jan. 24, this venue will provide a late-night extension of 4th Fridays.

“It’s what Chicagoans love, that kind of down-under cocktail lounge, where you sit down and sit back and enjoy some music in a great atmosphere,” Merkling says. “We want to start by opening that up to our regional bands.”

This rich, artistically driven environment inspires creativity at every turn, from the historic mansion built in 1865 to its annex, built in 1925 by Mrs. Lou Ringling as Crystal Lake’s first country club. Preservation and restoration work have been a central part of the organization’s mission from its founding in 2002.

Visit today and walk the “hall of history,” with historical photos of the building and old newspaper clippings that tell this property’s story, including its connection to the Ringling Bros. circus.

“We love these buildings, and we know that people are going to walk through them and fall in love with them, too,” says Merkling. “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. We’re going to have to pull the community in and they will love it, too.”

Merkling wants to encourage all ages and all demographics – from families with kids to couples out on a date.

“I always like to think about what the 25- to 40-year-olds are doing when they just want to go out on a Friday for a date,” says Merkling. “What are their options, and would we be able to create something where they feel like they’re not stepping into a child’s party or something they felt like they had to have kids to attend?”

If it feels like a lot is happening at The Dole, this is just a taste of what’s to come. Many exciting things are planned for the months ahead.

“People are blown away, and they tell us it takes their breath away, that the energy here has completely shifted and it’s totally over the top,” says Merkling. “That’s exactly what we want to hear. We want people to come in and say, ‘Oh my gosh, this place looks and sounds so awesome, and we want to come back.’”