Leaders of the DeKalb County Community Foundation (DCCF) announced on Wednesday, May 3, 2006, they had awarded a $5,000 challenge grant to the DeKalb Public Library (DPL) to pay for restoration of the muralby Gustaf Dahlstrom over the fireplace of the DPL’s Haish Memorial Library. [The DCCF is located in the county seat of DeKalb County, which remarkably is not DeKalb, Illinois but the neighboring town of Sycamore, Illinois.] Dahlstrom had produced the mural, as I wrote in Part I, at the behest of the Federal Art Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Seventy-one years after the mural was installed above the fireplace in the Haish Memorial Library, it showed signs of age that included rips an accumulation of dirt. Graduate students in the Department of Communicative Disorders in Northern Illinois University’s College of Health & Human Sciences wrote a grant proposal to pay for restoration of the mural.
“It’s a public work of art, and I think that people care about that and want it to stay in good shape,” said Dan Franks, one of the students in Professor Nancy M. Castle’s class on writing grant proposals in the fall of 2005. Under the challenge grant, the foundation would match each dollar contributed up to $5,000 to help pay the expected bill of $10,000.
“It’s a glorious day for the library and for the city of DeKalb and for WPA aficionados all over the United States,” said Dee Coover, then Interim Director of the DeKalb Public Library. “This mural is mentioned in books, but has really not been noticed. This is our opportunity to make it well known.”
Jerry Smith, Executive Director of the DCCF, praised Dr. Castle’s class for “restoring something with tremendous historical significance.” Smith said, “This involved a number of students in not only discovering what a local facility like the DeKalb Public Library has, but getting an opportunity to write a real-life grant proposal.” He continued, “It’s a marvelous thing that students, who many times see DeKalb as simply the home of the university, are able to go out and get into the infrastructure that is our community.”
The Chicago Conservation Center (CCC), also known simply as The Conservation Center,the largest fine arts conservation company in the U.S., was contracted for the restoration. Students in NIU’s museum studies certificate program set to work to produce informational literature on the mural to help schoolchildren and interested community members who came to the Haish Memorial Library to watch the restoration process.
“The offer to write the grant and participate in this project was such a gift to the library,” Dee Coover said. “It was on the back burner for many years, and all of a sudden, we had somebody who offered to bring it to the front burner. That really put into motion a project that previously lacked any momentum.”
It was one of many grant applications Professor Castle’s class submitted to several local organizations for their use, moving the course from a series of theoretical exercises to practical actions. “Usually I do a ‘you’re running an agency that’s helping deaf people; what would you do?’ project. Instead of doing that, I really sort of changed the class to a ‘how do you scout for foundation money?’ project,” said Dr. Castle, who has three degrees in psychology from NIU.
She said, “My students are going to get degrees in deaf rehabilitation counseling, and usually those are programs that are low on funds. Even though these projects weren’t about disability, the process of grant-writing is the same.”
At the same time, she became aware of the mural and its condition after a conversation with her friend, DPL Interim Director Dee Coover. “It was like ‘Shazam!’ I put two and two together,” Dr. Castle said.
Students assigned to the mural project were given a copy of Dahlstrom’s June 11, 1934 letter from the artist to Swen Parson of the Haish Memorial Library. The classroom assignment earned front-page coverage in the November 19, 2005 issue of the DeKalb Daily Chronicle.
“I really liked the project,” Franks said. “Once we got past the mechanics of the grant and got to the nitty-gritty – the history of the mural, the history of the library – we were able to learn a lot. I didn’t know there were so many WPA murals, and that so many of them had been destroyed. There’s such a story in them.”
“It’s the only class I’ve taught where the students have continued to e-mail me afterward to ask, ‘Have you heard? Have you heard?’ I finally wrote back, ‘Congratulations! You did it,’ ” Dr. Castle said. “The students have found this to be helpful. It’s not a required competency, but morally, we feel like if we’re going to prepare them for jobs of the future they need to have this skill of grant-writing.”
A few years later, the DCCF awarded a Community Needs grant to the NIU Art Museum for collaborative research, documentation and educational programs with the DPL and NIU Department of Media Services. The project would document and highlight the restoration of Dahlstrom’s mural in Haish Memorial Library.
The NIU Art Museum announced educational programs and projects were planned in conjunction with two major exhibitions at the NIU Art Museum on the Art of the New Deal Era. Under this grant, Dee Coover, by then permanent Director of the DPL, would research and document the mural and its restoration in order to share the information with both the public and local schoolchildren. Ms. Coover would work with Sophia Varcados of NIU Media Services to create two posters – one on Dahlstrom and one on the mural’s restoration by the CCC.
The informational posters were scheduled to be on display at the NIU Art Museum in April and May of last year (2010) during the related exhibitions. Afterwards, they were scheduled to go on to form a traveling exhibition for local schools with an optional educational presentation on FAP murals offered by NIU Art Museum staff. After one year of traveling amongst DeKalb County schools, the posters were scheduled to be on display at the Haish Memorial Library as an educational supplement to the actual mural.