I recall meeting the mayors of both Bloomington and Peoria some years ago at a Chicago conference and remarking to them that, as a citizen of Eureka, I enjoyed meeting government leaders from several of Eureka’s suburbs. At Eureka College we’ve been informed by consultants that, as residents of a Woodford County town, one of our strengths is our location—not only with our own attractions and institutions, but also with those of both major tri-county urban centers, Chicago, St. Louis, and beyond.
On my front porch each weekend are copies of the Sunday editions of both major area newspapers; articles regularly appear in each about arts in the area. Recently, one of our productions was named as one of the best in the area by one source while that same production received little press in the other.
Deserving productions and events in any local community, if they’re covered or reviewed, are often covered or reviewed by only one news source. Seldom do both papers provide the coverage and diversity of critical opinion I’d like to see. Similarly, a quick Internet search reveals there are too few sites about our regional arts resources (try it yourselves: type in “arts in central Illinois” or something similar. The results are discouraging). Our major commercial media operations seldom devote significant airtime to local arts. The diversity of the arts, artists, and audiences in central Illinois deserve more regional coverage and focus.
Ah yes, coverage. Last November a column in one area newspaper noted the debate among television stations and viewers over how much airtime was being devoted to Bloomington-Normal versus Peoria news stories, with some members of each community feeling slighted.
Perhaps limited coverage is valid for publishers and advertisers who see their primary customer base as coming from one city or the other; perhaps limited coverage is valid in terms of establishing and maintaining a local economy; perhaps limited coverage is valid for organizations with limited sources of funding, who want to concentrate on what’s seen as a primary source of audiences; perhaps limited coverage is valid for those who have poor access to poor regional public transportation (it’s ironic that a rail line parallels I-74 between the two cities—how it might be used is another topic). But are we really speaking of such a vast distance between the various communities in the area? As artists and patrons of the arts, we’re too often isolated from one another, an artificial isolation made manifest in both attendance and coverage of regional events.
I grew up near New York City. By highway, the distance was around 60 miles, and we traveled there frequently. Many of my East Coast acquaintances still commute that distance every working day. And most in our area travel or commute significant distances each day. My highway map calculates the distance between Bloomington-Normal and Peoria at 40 miles. The distance from any one community to another in the tri-county area isn’t very significant in our mobile society.
As readers of this article, you’re probably patrons or producers of the arts, and most of us are familiar, although perhaps not as familiar as we might like to be, with the arts in the area. (While it might appear my argument centers along the I-74 corridor, let me note there are events and organizations in communities both north and south of that artery.)
There were and are groups that extend their influence beyond the boundaries of any given city—the Central Illinois Arts Consortium comes to mind—but by and large we tend to focus too narrowly. Logistically, I suppose, there may be a need for some sort of boundary, but an alliance of organizations and a competitive alliance of coverage would best serve the arts in central Illinois.
I quote a letter regarding residency requirements for people working at Peoria City Hall that was published by a local newspaper last November: “If I work at McDonalds, I can only eat at McDonalds. If I work at Cub Foods, I must buy my groceries at Cub Foods. If I work at University Ford, I can only drive a Ford. If I teach at District 150 schools, my kids can only attend District 150 schools.” By extension, that argument—called “silly” by its author and written to make a point—could be expanded to say: If I live in Eureka, I can only attend or cover arts events in Eureka. If I live in Peoria, I can only attend or cover arts events in Peoria. If I live in Bloomington or Normal, I can only attend or cover arts events there. Yes, it is silly. That it tends to be that way is just as silly.
Regional arts anyone? AA!