University Park, IL,
09:29 AM

Jeff Stevenson: Connecting with community

A man smiling in front of a large outdoor sculpture

As director and curator of the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park and Visual Arts Gallery at Governors State University (GovState), Jeff Stevenson views his leadership role as an important liaison between the University’s arts facilities and programs with the broader community, renowned artists and generous financial supporters. 

This is critical to his key priority: building awareness.

“Awareness-building is a long-standing challenge and goal so we have built traditions that our friends, fans and followers can expect each year, with new attractions added at strategic times,” Stevenson said.  “And the art and artists always come first and serve as our primary foundation.” 

Another important step toward this goal is Stevenson’s recent appointment to the Chicago Southland Convention & Visitors Bureau, a destination marketing organization. It promotes the region’s communities as an “exceptional destination for meetings, events and leisure pursuits while advocating for the development of outstanding, inclusionary experiences that attract visitors and residents alike.”

CSCVB has been a supporter of the arts and often features theNate in its publications because it amplifies their mission,” said Stevenson. “I’m hoping to continue this relationship and also discover new connections and relationships with other members of CSCVB.” 

Stevenson arrived at GovState in 2006 as an adjunct professor and became the Visual Arts Gallery director in 2010. In 2017, he also became director of theNate in a combined role to oversee programming, presentation, conservation and acquisition for the theNate’s large-scale artworks on 100-plus acres surrounding the GovState campus. He replaced Geoffrey Bates who was the first director named in 2007. 

Formally established by the University’s Board of Trustees in 1978, the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park was named for Nathan Manilow, a visionary developer who, along with Carrol Sweet and Philip Klutznick, formed American Community Builders at the conclusion of World War II. The history of the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park predates GSU because sculptor Mark diSuvero spent the summers of 1968 and 1969 living and building sculpture on the land that became the university.

Today, theNate attracts an estimated 6,000 visitors to campus annually. The landscape-based sculptures were created by distinguished artists at the height of their creative powers. Visitors find a group of works by major late-20th Century American sculptors and Chicago-based artists, ca. 1973-2010. Sculptors from France and Mexico are also represented.

Stevenson sees the role of theNate, the Visual Arts Gallery and the Art on Campus program as integral parts of the culture of the University. “The visual arts, and the arts in general, are central to the DNA of GovState,” he said. 

The Visual Arts Gallery connects the academic and creative pursuits of the students and faculty in the art program, he explained. One of Stevenson’s early accomplishments at GovState was the first National Juried Exhibition in 2010. The Art on Campus Program brings exhibits to walls around campus, representing relevant themes and topics to a diverse and growing audience. 

Nearly completed is the newest sculpture for theNate, “Avian Station,” located in the 12-acre Butterfly Ranch prairie restoration project. “This project has been a long time coming,” said Stevenson. “After ‘Avian Station’ is completed, we’ll invite the public to experience it and theNate during the beautiful autumn weather.”

The new installation will be featured on Sept. 14, 2024 during a dedication ceremony honoring the artist, Bernard Williams at the annual fundraising event, Sculpture, Wine & Dine.

The most recent Sculpture, Wine & Dine event raised $50,000 through ticket sales, donations and support of lead sponsors, Sutton Ford and BMO, returning sponsors, Old National and Mesirow, and new sponsor Robert R. McCormick Foundation. 

“As visitors discover the magic of theNate, and that GSU is an arts destination, our financial support grows,” Stevenson said. “Our community partners understand that we need support to remain a free public resource and carry out our mission of Art, Conservation (of the art and land), and Education.”

Such support signals the enduring relationships Stevenson has built with the art community and sponsors, ensuring a bright future for theNate in the cultural landscape of the Chicago Southland community and GovState. 

“It’s my vision to build on our rich history and to continue to grow through collaboration and relationships.”