September 23, 2010

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Started small, going strong
NH Art Association celebrates staying power
By Adam Coughlin acoughlin@hippopress.com

Inspiration comes in many forms for artists. Sometimes it arrives and leads to a revolutionary piece of work. Other times it starts a movement. In 1940, America was pulling itself out of a depression and into a World War. People needed to be inspired. A group of dedicated local artists would heed the call and now, 70 years later, their organization, the New Hampshire Art Association, is still going strong.

It was New Hampshire’s first statewide non-profit arts organization, according to Billie Tooley, executive director. And such a group doesn’t survive seven presidents, multiple wars, a $2.50 increase in gasoline price per gallon and countless changes of what is vogue in art, unless it has strong support.

“Those were rough times,” Tooley said. “They knew there was power in numbers and they didn’t want people to forget how important the arts are. Arts can record what is going on.”

While the New Hampshire Art Association (NHAA) celebrates local artists, and today there are more than 450 active artists, it was the work of a dedicated few throughout the years that altered the fate of New Hampshire art.

The founding fathers of the NHAA were Omer Lassonde, William Holst and Lotte Jacobi. Lassonde was a devoted painter his entire life and loved the association even after his death. He and his wife, Louisa, willed their historic home and barn in Boscawen to the NHAA, which was used for years as offices, gallery and workshops, until the maintenance on the property became too expensive, according to Tooley. When it was sold, the proceeds were placed in a permanent trust. The NHAA has more than 150 of Lassonde’s paintings in its collection.

While Lassonde was there at the beginning, Grace Casey worked to strengthen the organization. Casey was the first executive director of the NHAA and held the post for 16 years before her retirement in 1986. But her reach seemingly had no limit. She was also instrumental in advocating for the creation of the NH Commission on the Arts, which was established in 1966 and is known today as the State Council on the Arts. But even these monumental accomplishments weren’t what Casey was most proud of. Her pride and joy was the Prescott Park Arts Festival, which she co-founded in 1974 with John Kimball.

With such a long history and dedicated members it is no surprise the NHAA has had extensive collaborations over the years. For the past 60 years, following an invitation, the works of NHAA artists have been displayed in a juried exhibition at the Currier Museum of Art. While these works look good under the lights of a museum, they also look appealing out in the sunshine. That is why NHAA artists have been displaying their work in the tents at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen for the past 40 years.

“The collaborative spirit is still alive with ongoing collaborations with the New Hampshire Furniture Masters, art departments in colleges in the state, and the New Hampshire Association for the Blind, educating communities on how to show art to the visually handicapped,” Tooley said.

While the NHAA looks back it also stares ahead to the future. That is why it is taking its 70th anniversary as an opportunity to raise funds to upgrade its computer system and expand educational opportunities. On Saturday, Oct. 2, a gala party will be held at the Portsmouth Harbor Events and Conference Center. Besides the usual pageantry that accompanies a gala, what will make this evening unique, according to Tooley, is that history will come to life. Through so many years, the NHAA has accumulated quite a collection of art and some of that will be auctioned during the gala, according to Tooley.

“We’re not a museum,” Tooley said. “This art deserves to be displayed.”

Buy a piece of art and celebrate the past while supporting the future.


Work from the NH Art Association collection. Courtesy photo.

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