RAVENSWOOD — A decade after moving from its original location in Lincoln Park, Lillstreet Art Center is still establishing roots at its Ravenswood home.
"Ten years later, it's still 'new,'" said executive director Eric Tschetter.
Perhaps that's because the art center has never embraced the notion of settling down.
"We're always looking at new ideas," said Tschetter.
Lillstreet opened in 1975 as an artistic extension of a clay business owned by founder and current chief executive officer Bruce Robbins.
An early emphasis on ceramics has since expanded to encompass metalsmithing, printmaking, digital arts and textiles. That breadth also extends to Lillstreet's community, which welcomes everyone from "working artists to people who haven't touched an art medium since middle school," said Tschetter.
If Lillstreet was worried students and studio artists would be reluctant to travel the handful of miles north to 4401 N. Ravenswood Ave., that fear has long since been put to rest.
Even during the recent economic recession, Lillstreet has continued to grow, Tschetter said.
The center now boasts more than 10,000 annual "enrollment experiences" — meaning some people take multiple classes — with the majority of students coming from within a three- to four-mile radius. The ceramics program alone accounts for 400 students every session.
"We expected business to drop off, but it was the opposite," Tschetter said.
Some people have used the center as a less expensive alternative to taking a vacation. Others, he said, simply "become addicted to being here."
In a culture that's otherwise extremely wired, Lillstreet offers a rare hands-on tactile experience, said Tschetter.
"I think art is one of those things that's essential in life. I think everyone's got it in them to be creative — it satisfies a part of your soul," he said. "We're a 'third space' in people's lives. We're not work, we're not home. We're a place to do something for yourself."
The center has been so successful, it's now at a place that would have seemed inconceivable 10 years ago — in need of more room.
The center recently introduced Lillstreet Loft at 4437 N. Ravenswood Ave. to accommodate events, meetings and celebrations.
"We could use more studio space" for professional artists to rent, Tschetter added. "It's shrinking all the time as we add classes."
Though the center would love to buy another building in Ravenswood for studio artists — Tschetter said the center has every intention of maintaining its education programs under the current single roof — the corridor's become "shockingly expensive," he said, with Lillstreet's anchoring presence a "definite influence" on the area's changing fortunes.
For now, Tschetter is focused on "what can we do to improve this facility." That may take the form of better equipment — the textiles department recently received an infusion of sewing machines — or bringing in new departments.
"There's always more opportunity," said Tschetter, ticking off glass blowing, woodworking, video, design and large-scale metalworking.
"We have hopes and dreams like everyone," he said. "We just need to figure out how."
The key is for Lillstreet to feel like Lillstreet, no matter what changes come in the next 10 or 50 years.
Tschetter always returns to Lillstreet's guiding principle: a community built around the idea of a love of the arts.
To celebrate its 10th anniversary in Ravenswood, Lillstreet is holding a number of special events this weekend, including a reception for its newest gallery exhibit on Friday and a block party outside Lillstreet Loft on Saturday.