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Quiet Muse: 2007 Riverssance Harley Award Winner Ruth Evelyn Katz PDF Print E-mail
Art - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 12 September 2007 02:35

Mayor Mark Schwiebert and Ruth Evelyn Katz Over the past 19 years, the Riverssance Festival of Fine Art has bestowed the Harley Award (named after the event's harlequin logo) in recognition of "an individual or organization that has demonstrated a lasting commitment to the promotion and the advancement of the visual arts and artists in the Quad Cities area." And certainly, that description applies to 2007's Harley Award recipient, Ruth Evelyn Katz.

Award director - and frequent River Cities' Reader contributor - Bruce Carter says that Katz "really kept art alive in the Quad Cities in the '50s and '60s and '70s," and continues to have a profound effect on area arts today; among other endeavors, she currently serves on the boards of Quad City Arts, the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, the Rock Island Public Library, and Ballet Quad Cities, and is a member of the Figge Art Museum's gallery-acquisition committee.

Yet Katz is a rarity among Harley Award winners in that she is not, strictly speaking, an artist herself.

"The Harley Award," says Carter, "mostly goes to teachers and artists in the area, like the Blooms and Father Catich and Bill Hannan. But we felt that her [Katz's] presence in the art community was very, very strong."

Citing the monetary support she has offered area arts organizations, her co-founding of Rock Island's Maka Gallery - the Quad Cities' first private commercial art gallery - and what he calls her "wonderful eye," Carter adds, "I would say that Ruth Evelyn is just this quiet muse behind the Quad Cities art scene."

Katz, who admits to being "overwhelmed" upon learning of her Harley recognition, says she gained an appreciation of the visual arts primarily through museums in the United States and Europe, which she'd flock to when vacationing with her late husband Isador.

"The minute we'd hit a city," Katz recalls, "I'd run to either a church to look at the architecture, or to a museum, and he'd say to me, ‘Well, come on, walk around! Say hello to the people!'"

Katz laughs. "But I just fell in love with it [art]. The remarkable thing is that while I had spent years in the study of drama and had done it professionally, and the same with music, in art I never had any lessons, and had never been exposed to a great deal of it.

"But it's been a great part of my life," she says. "I don't know what I would have done without it."

Her immersion in the local arts scene began with her 1956 membership in the Rock Island Art Guild, the volunteer support organization that subsequently initiated the Rock Island Fine Arts Exhibition at Katz's alma mater, Augustana College.

"The remarkable thing about Art Guild," she says, "is the good feeling. This group has remained so intact, and loving of each other - loving what they're working for. There's no sniveling or jealousies or anything. It's really something to be proud of."

(She's also understandably proud of Augustana's annual exhibition, saying, "It's amazing how that's grown. It used to be that if you had an art show, or an organization put one on, it was out at one of the state parks, and you put the pictures around a tree or something, you know?")

Her involvement with the guild led to the opening of Maka Gallery, which Katz co-founded with her husband and several partners in 1964.

"We were all members of Rock Island Art Guild," she says, "and because we worked on certain projects together, and our kids were grown and away, it was time to embark on something else. It just seemed to grow simultaneously out of that.

"And, oh God, what a joy that was," Katz says of the gallery, which finally closed its doors in 1987. "To see how tastes developed over time. It was a metamorphosis. It really was."

Regarding this year's Harley Award, Katz says she is "quite awed. ... It's given me great joy to even think about it." Yet her contributions to the arts have also been recognized on a state level, as she was previously honored with a 2004 Studs Terkel Humanities Award from the Illinois Humanities Council, having been nominated for the honor by Rock Island Mayor Mark Schwiebert.

Currently, Katz continues to be involved with exhibitions and programs at Quad City Arts - which she has been associated with since its inception in 1988 - and considers her work with the Figge's art committee "one of the most interesting things I've ever been connected with.

"I didn't realize what you have to consider when you give a gift to a museum," she says, "or what you have to use as guidelines when you accept a gift. So I've been behind the scenes - what I would call ‘backstage.' It's fun to be in that position."

She also continues to travel to museums nationwide. "On vacations now," says Katz, "I've gone to some of the major [U.S.] cities and looked into the art in the museums there, and I am just amazed. There's such an exciting arts scene."

And, she says, an exciting one in her home community, as well.

"I don't like to use the word ‘saturated,' because that denotes something that we've got too much of. But oh, the wonderful art that's here. And also the respect that's paid to it. I think that's what's good. It used to be, ‘Oh, well, they're an artist. Sniff sniff.'"

Katz laughs and says, "I'll tell you, we're very, very lucky around here - the way all the arts are flourishing. We have so much to choose from.

"And anyone who says they're bored?" she asks, laughing again. "Shame on them."


For more information on the 2007 Midcoast Fine Arts' Riverssance Festival of Fine Art, taking place in East Davenport's Lindsay Park on September 15 and 16, see the back page of this week's Reader, or visit (

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