After 116 years, an art groups last hurrah

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Janice Conally and Beverly Krysa suffer from starving artist syndrome.

Such a self-ascribed ailment seems unlikely in a city that houses countless galleries and a region with an array of artist organizations. But one of their main outlets, the American Art League, is on the outs 116 years after its founding, due in part the success of the vibrant, active art community in the city and the region.

I think its just that 100 years ago, what could we join? Conally queried before taking inventory of the many artist groups in the area. It was just the outfit, I would suspect.

Since then, a distinct artist community with a lot more options has evolved in Alexandria. But more significant to the AALs final stage is what treasurer and de facto president (the only officer left) Chuck Lee calls a natural turnover for the aging organization that he says has simply run its course. Just as older veterans organizations disband and make room for younger veterans of recent wars, Lee said that its time to call it quits.

Its not like its the only forum that members have to exhibit and participate, Lee said. And so it basically provides members and has for a number of years with a couple of exhibits a year and an outlet.

Krysa and Conally good friends and artists comprise the Alexandria chapter of the regional organization, founded in 1894, which begins its last exhibition today at the American Horticultural Societys River Farm in Fort Hunt. But Conally and Krysa are not complaining; they applaud places like the Torpedo Factorys Art League of which they are both members for their success. They are nonetheless unhappy to witness the demise of what they consider an accessible, artist-friendly outlet.

Over the years, the AAL has seen more centralized, active venues like the Torpedo Factory spring up while its own, more casual format has been more of a traveling exhibit so theres no real fan base, Krysa said. 

This is somewhat positive for its 43 members, though, because they say it produces more of an artist-friendly vibe. While membership in the AAL is juried, not all of its shows are, like the upcoming River Farm exhibit, producing less competition and more focus on creating art rather than selling it though it is on the market. 

Conally and Krysa have taken full advantage.

As far as were concerned, if there was going to be a show, we did the show, Conally said. Sometimes we enter two or three [works of art].

I dont think they sell a lot probably not, Krysa said. But you get your name out in front of the people so its not a money-making machine by any means.

Lee, is the groups only remaining officer. Charged with making the decision to disband or keep going, he decided that to call it quits based on its aging members who do not have the time or energy to play major leadership roles, despite their affinity for the AAL. Theyll go out with pride, Lee said from the River Farm ball room as artist hung their works on the wall, by holding their last show at the historic site that was once home to one of George Washingtons farms.

An average of two exhibits a year, a field trip and a scholarship award to a graduating senior of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts have comprised the AALs primary functions. Lee said the impressive century-spanning age of the organization does not have bearing on its current status. The AAL has never claimed to be a powerhouse in the art world as much as it has been a community of dedicated artists. 

Its been a very interesting trip with this group of people, he said. Thats why I have enjoyed it: The quality of the friendship and the type of people that are there.

Unfazed by the disbandment, each is accomplished in their work and will continue creating artistry both personally and through other organizations, but not before one last hurrah, as Conally put it. 

Ironically, it is the groups last exhibit that has garnered the previously lukewarm interest from members. Conally, Krysa, Lee and 13 others will hang their horticultural-themed pieces at the River Farm exhibit, which will run for four months. 

According to Lee, the general response to his call for artists was, I normally would not have exhibited, but since this is the last one, I felt there was a need to be there.

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