It seems William Butler, executive director of the Contemporary Art Center of Peoria, was destined to make his living in the art world. "By the time I was six, I was already a serious artist. At that time, I remember my reply to my father when he asked what I wanted to be. I said, ’I want to draw pictures and get paid for it.’ My delighted father replied, ’What you want to be is a commercial artist.’"
Of course, young Butler, who grew up in Bartonville, had no idea what a commercial artist was, but he set his sights on the profession nonetheless. "Fortunately, my high school art teacher, Michael Hagenbuch, emphasized graphic design. I graduated with an associate degree in graphic design from Illinois Central College. I then went to Northern Illinois University intending to be involved in computer graphics, but that department was really behind the times," he said.
Disillusioned, Butler dropped out and drifted until he met James Winn for the second time. "We first met at ICC when he was a substitute teacher. At NIU, I started going to a Baptist church in Sycamore, and Jim and his family had recently moved there. Since we had last seen each other, he had gotten into Struve Gallery in Chicago and was selling paintings before they had even been created. The Winns had purchased a Victorian house and were fixing it up, and his studio was in the attic. I thought it was really cool, so while in school, I started to move in the direction of being a fine artist and getting gallery representation."
After college, he worked as a graphic designer for Auto Meter Products, where he painted realistic watercolors. Less than two years later, he moved to Aurora after securing a position at Processed Plastic Company, where Tim Mee Toys are manufactured. "My job was to design toys, packaging, instructions, and labels. During that time, I was represented by two galleries for a total of four years in Arlington Heights and Naperville, but I didn’t sell anything. I sold my first paintings when I put in my two weeks’ notice," he said.
Butler had exhibited at one art fair in New York City, and even though he said it was an awful experience, he could see the potential. "For the next three years, I promoted myself through art fairs and selling watercolors. I won numerous awards for these realistic renderings of common objects, like textured brick walls and peeling paint on a windowsill bathed in light and shadow. I often won best of show at a fair, but I wasn’t selling enough to make a living at it, which was my goal."
He analyzed what elements worked well in the art fair market and created a new direction based on those elements. "In 1996, I started to experiment with relief paints in linoleum. I’d utilized a relief paint style as an illustrator, and it was a natural progression from simulating print to actually producing them."
The Contemporary Art Center became part of Butler’s life when he took a studio at the Checkered Raven, as it was then called, in January 1996. According to Butler, co-founder Bob Emser said Butler could pay less rent if he took out the trash each week, and he soon realized there was more that needed to be done. "Within a few years, I was the building manager. I continued to maintain most of the building, and I started a lawn business to better supplement my artistic activity. When gallery manager Tasha Guidi left in January, I was considered by many to be a good fit for the position of executive director. However, it took some months for me to be convinced of this."
He eventually came around to popular opinion, however, and he gave up his lawn business. Butler said having a "regular day job" again has taken some getting used to. "I only did six art fairs this year; last year I did 17. Of course, this isn’t a typical job. As the sole employee of the CAC, I wear many hats: salesman, office manager, landlord, representative, planner, organizer, etc. I’m so grateful for the many dedicated volunteers, some of whom give 16 hours each week to maintain such diverse programming."
Butler’s biggest accomplishment at the CAC has been his involvement with the purchase of the third floor, he said. "When I first started, I learned we’d been purchasing the third floor since 1999, when the partnership between Bob Emser and Preston Jackson was dissolved. The property was split: the second floor for Preston and the third for Bob. The CAC then entered into a contractual agreement to purchase both floors on a monthly basis. Our contract with Bob ended August 31, so from May until August, we worked hard to put the puzzle pieces together to get our own loan to buy him out. We closed on the third floor purchase September 26. This was important because the third floor is where all of the artists’ studios are located, and individual artists have always been a major focus of the CAC."
Butler said his future goal for the Contemporary Art Center is to improve and expand what the organization is already doing well. "For example, one can expect to see more art classes offered by January. I’m also talking with a number of individuals to devise ways to create new programming, thereby increasing membership. It’s also very important to me to strengthen relationships with others in the arts and work together to bring greater recognition of the arts in the Peoria area." AA!