Opened in 1947, the Grand Marais Art Colony has been the longest lived art colony in Minnesota. It began as an eight-week summer course but became a year-round art colony that unites the natural beauty of the North Shore with Minnesota’s vibrant artistic community.
In 1947, Birney Quick set out to organize a summer course on the North Shore. Quick was an instructor at the Minneapolis School of Art, which became the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 1970. Having grown up in Duluth, Quick thought that Grand Marais was an ideal place to establish an art colony.
In the early twentieth century, many similar art colonies formed in scenic small towns throughout the United States. Quick himself had painted at the Woodstock Art Colony in upstate New York in 1936. He hoped to bring the relaxed art colony atmosphere to his summer session in Grand Marais.
Quick’s first class in Grand Marais opened in the summer of 1947. The first group of twenty students registered for an eight week session emphasizing “en plein air,” or outdoor, painting. Many of the students in the first session were returning soldiers studying art on the G.I. Bill. They took classes, lived in Grand Marais, and began traditions like the weekly fish fry that became mainstays of life at the art colony.
Quick brought a second group of students to the colony the next year. In 1949, the Minneapolis School of Art chose to move their summer painting course to Red Wing, which was closer. However, after two summers, Grand Marais convinced the art colony to return. In 1952 the colony opened again, located in the Grand Marais town hall and renamed the Town Hall Art Colony.
The art colony became a hub of Grand Marais’s cultural life, and residents began holding events that were open to the public. Artists held Monday evening painting demonstrations at the local high school. Residents could drop in for Wednesday evening classes, and there were Saturday morning classes for area children. Murals and sculptures made by art colony residents became part of the Grand Marais landscape. The art colony hosted concerts, lectures, and dances and paved the way for other budding cultural organizations in Grand Marais.
In 1958, the Minneapolis School of Art decided not to continue financing the summer art colony. Quick, along with fellow artist Byron Bradley, reopened the summer painting school as an independent organization, The Grand Marais Art Colony, in 1959. In 1963 Quick and Bradley bought the former St. John’s Catholic Church building and moved the colony to its current location.
Many Minnesota artists studied, worked, or taught at the art colony over the years. Keith Havens, a student in the first Grand Marais course, went on to teach in the colony and live on the North Shore. Mike Lynch, one of Minnesota’s foremost Modern Realists, studied painting at the Grand Marais Art Colony. George Morrison and Hazel Belvo, along with MCAD faculty members, taught at the colony and influenced its development.
As years went on, student attendance declined. Changes in the art world made landscape painting less popular. Fewer students from the Minneapolis School of Art enrolled in courses. The colony adapted, offering more courses designed for amateur artists. The 1981 death of founder Birney Quick was a significant loss for the colony community. Nevertheless, the organization that he helped establish was able to continue. Highlighting its significance to the community, colony supporters transformed the Grand Marais Art Colony from a private business into a nonprofit organization in the 1980s.
In the decades since its founding, the Grand Marais Art Colony has become a year-round arts and cultural organization. The colony offers courses and workshops in a range of artistic mediums. In 2005, the colony opened a second building next to the St. John’s Church building, including space for glass, clay and printmaking studios. Artists from across the United States and Canada come to the colony to participate in its yearly Plein Air Competition. While the Grand Marais Art colony was formed to give art students access to the remarkable landscape of the North Shore, the colony has gone on to leave its own lasting impression on the artistic landscape of Minnesota.
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