The Outdoor Art Club, one of Mill Valley’s oldest and historically important organizations, is answering that question with flair as it approaches its 115th Anniversary in 2017. The 400-member group has an event calendar that is chock full of lectures, outings and community service projects, culminating with a huge anniversary celebration in May 2017.
“There’s a social dynamic to this organization, but we remain committed to the founding ideals of doing good things in Mill Valley and the larger community,” says OAC President Maria Hilakos Hanke. “And it’s all because of our members – it’s a wonderful group of women, and everybody just steps up.”
In choosing a theme for the Outdoor Art Club’s next year, Hilakos Hanke identified “Looking Forward —Looking Back!” as the perfect way to straddle the group’s landmark history and promising future. The group gave a preview of its vitality earlier this year during the Mill Valley Memorial Day Parade, when a bevy of OAC members dressed up to represent the many decades of the Club’s existence, with Hilakos Hanke sporting the uniform of a World War II Women’s Army Corps member.
“It’s a very exciting time to be a member of the Outdoor Art Club.” she says.
The organization, founded in 1902 by 35 women, many of whom were members of the families that built the foundation of Mill Valley, took itself seriously from the get-go, establishing its mission to “preserve the natural scenery of Mill Valley and the surrounding country, to beautify the grounds around the public buildings, to work against wanton destruction of birds and game, to encourage the development of outdoor art and to engage in other civic, literary, and charitable work.”
If that sound like a broad mission, consider that “in 1902 Mill Valley was a new town, a tourist destination and a place still without a vision of what it could and should be. The area’s unpaved roads were littered with trash left behind by patrons of ‘The Crookedest Railroad in the World.’ Due to logging, there were few trees, and no library, parks or public health services for its citizens. From the beginning, the OAC’s founding members chose to take an active role in the future development of their town. They formed a women’s club not just as a place to socialize, but also as a vehicle for civic engagement,” according to the OAC’s history records.
The OAC’s basement is filled with boxes of board minutes and scrapbooks showing “that there did not seem to be many local issues in which these women did not assume a responsible voice. Even without the vote (women garnered the right to vote in California in 1911), they were seen as civic and cultural leaders, ones frequently looked to for advice and support.”
Those issues included naming streets, planting trees, creating school gardens, sponsoring cleanup days, clearing weeds from the streets and assisting in the development of both Boyle and Old Mill Parks. The OAC clubhouse at 1 West Blithedale Avenue downtown was the home of Mill Valley’s first library, was a staging center during local disasters and a cultural center for the pursuit of art, music, literature and California history. The group was among the pioneers of Marin’s rich history of environmental activism.
That level of engagement remains true to this day. OAC hosts a wide range of lectures, including from California Historical Society CEO Dr. Anthea Hartig and renowned criminal defense attorney Gerald Schwartzbach, who represented actor Robert Blake and former National Football League star Marshawn Lynch in prominent legal cases. OAC is also hosting a ‘State of the City’ event from Mayor John McCauley and City Manager Jim McCann, and operates Literary, Cultural Arts, Civics & Conservation and Garden Programs as well as myriad events, including a Fall Fashion Show, a Village Crafts Market, a Holiday Dinner Dance, a Village Edibles Market, a New Year’s Day Open House, the Crab Fest, Rummage Sale, Teddy Bear Tea and ‘Stepping Out to Museums’ events.
With all that on its plate, the Club will build momentum towards one of its biggest events, the Garden Tour on April 27, 2017. The Tour is the Club’s major fundraiser, with proceeds going to both preserve the organization’s historic Bernard Maybeck clubhouse and benefit an array of Marin County nonprofits, with more than $350,000 going to Marin organizations over the past 19 years. And true to its roots, the OAC continues to support local beautification and infrastructure upgrades, including the ongoing renovation of the Replica Gravity Car on the Depot Plaza and the installation of a new water station at the Community Center in 2014.
And on May 17, the Club will team up with the Mill Valley Historical Society for an open-to-the-public 115th Anniversary Celebration, with attendees able to see “newly installed displays of photographs and artifacts highlighting some of the OAC’s accomplishments and changes over the years. While everyone enjoys wine, appetizers and music, docents will provide guided tours of our National Historic Register building.”
“We can’t wait,” Hilakos Hanke says.