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McKinnon art collection still enriching student curriculum

La Grange, IL

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Life in La Grange Park

Nettie J. McKinnon, principal of Ogden Avenue and Oak Avenue schools from 1930 to 1960, has long been a name frequently mentioned by parents, children and community members. When children first entered Ogden Avenue School in the late 1970s and ’80s, a tour of the Nettie J. McKinnon art collection was part of the open house for parents. The collection was housed at the time on the second floor of the school and visitors were always welcome to come and view the works. In the fall of 1979, two open houses and a holiday party become annual events.

The history of the development of the collection is unique. Beginning in 1930, the students at Oak Avenue School would sell magazine subscriptions so that the eighth-graders could purchase an annual class gift for the school. Forward thinking does not even begin to describe the gift that McKinnon gave her students and what has become her legacy to our village.

The students would buy a piece of original art, mostly paintings though there are some sculptures in the collection, for the school. There were times when the artist would come to the school and exhibit art for the students to decide on the particular piece that they wanted. Some of this artwork was on display for years in the classrooms for all to admire. Oak Avenue School closed in 1975 and the collection was stored until 1978, when it was moved and stored in boxes in the space that would later become the gallery at Ogden Avenue School.

In 1957, McKinnon published a catalog of the art works; 72 are listed in the original catalog. She wrote the introduction of this catalog and she said, “A great work of art has the power to change everyday experiences into the realm of the mysterious or the beautiful. To have the daily companionship of works of art such as these is a somewhat unusual experience for many school children. While one may not know the degree of appreciation developed, it is evident that children as art lovers do grow in grace and reverence. ... This collection has become a living heritage, which the community shares now and always.”

This heritage lives on today: in April 2002, District 102 commissioned a Fair Market Value Appraisal of the collection. The collection was then placed in storage in June 2002, as construction of a new gym at Ogden Avenue School began. During the next school year, a district level task force was formed to make recommendations to the Board of Education. The collection was renamed the Nettie J. McKinnon Collection of American Art. Through the past few years, the task force has continued to work to set up a foundation and protect the collection.

Today, the Nettie J. McKinnon Collection of American Art is an integral part of the curriculum at School District 102. This year, the eighth-grade students at Park Junior High will pick a piece of art to research. They may choose a season, an artist or a painting. They will then write a book geared toward the first- and second-graders in the elementary schools. After writing their books, Lynn Heth of the art department at Park Junior High will assist the students in developing a podcast of their book for viewing by the younger children.

As Zenia McBride, art teacher at Park Junior High, said, “Lynn Heth is an incredible source for the collection; she is truly the historian and knows so much about each piece and each artist and the history of each painting.”

The elementary age children will then be able to not only read the books specifically written for them but can follow along on the podcast.

Today, the collection includes more than 120 works of art, with most of the artists represented in leading museum collections throughout the country. Tours are open to the public and are conducted by eighth-grade students at Park Junior High. The students go through a stringent docent training program where they are required to do much research and truly learn about the works.

The tours are conducted 2:30 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays at Park Junior High, 333 N. Park Road, La Grange Park. The phone number is (708) 482-2500. Park is only one of two elementary schools in the country to have a full, private art collection.

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