Central Illinois is rich with artistic offerings, and the cultural opportunities expand with a short drive to Galesburg, home of the Galesburg Civic Arts Center (GCAC). Director Heather L. Norman said the mission of the 82-year-old Art Center is to educate, enrich, and enhance the community through the visual arts. “Our programming works to achieve these goals. We currently have a gift gallery that represents approximately 100 regional artists, and our exhibition gallery showcases 11 exhibitions per year.”

She said the GCAC’s exhibition schedule each year includes: GALEX, a national juried show and competition; Members and Friends, an opportunity for artists within a 50-mile radius to exhibit their work; and Holiday Showcase, an expansion of the gift gallery for the holiday season. “Every other year, we exhibit works by Galesburg High School juniors and seniors. The remainder of our exhibition schedule is generally two-person shows of regional artists. We have two popular fundraisers per year: Holiday House Walk, a tour of five Galesburg homes, and our annual Marti Gras party and art auction,” she said.

Another favorite tradition is Art in the Park, a one-day art fair the third Saturday in July, Norman said. “We have more than 65 artists participate, music, and children’s activities. This takes place in Standish Park Arboretum in downtown Galesburg. Last year, we began an independent film festival, the Black Earth Film Festival, which the Art Center presents at the Galesburg’s Historic Orpheum Theatre. Each year, we also host an eight-week artist’s residency program, Studios Midwest. This program has brought national and international artists to Galesburg for 19 years; it’s been an official Art Center program for the past three years. We’ve also developed a series of workshops designed to help new and emerging artists develop and established artists improve their business skills.”

The GCAC can trace its roots back to the turn of the 20th century. In 1901, prior to the establishment of the current organization, a group of citizens met at the YMCA to form an art association, with Professor H. V. Neal of Knox College as president. Membership was by invitation only. The group lasted only seven years, but they established the idea of an art association for this community that’s lasted into the 21st century.

In February 1923, Galesburg citizens, under the leadership of arts patron George Dole, formed the Galesburg chapter of the American Federation of Arts. The group adopted the name of the Galesburg Civic Art League. For the next three decades, the League promoted the sale of art, presented free exhibits, and promoted art activities. This was also the year the first piece in the permanent collection was acquired. The Art League had no permanent home, meeting in vacant storefronts, the public library, and the Illinois Power Building. In 1946, the Community Lounge of the YMCA became its first permanent home. By 1965, the Community Lounge was no longer available because of expansion plans for the YMCA, and a new home was needed. It was decided that owning a building was appropriate and necessary so exhibits and activities could be held. At the same time, the group decided to open its membership to anyone, no longer being “by invitation only.”

The building at 114 East Main Street was found, purchased, and remodeled—and the organization began using the Galesburg Civic Art Center as its public name. All members of the community were invited to join, and the business community became very involved. In 1968, the first part-time staff member was hired. Today, the Galesburg Civic Art Center is a non-profit membership organization and has nearly 400 business and individual members.

Norman said Galesburg and the surrounding area are fortunate not only to have a beautiful visual arts gallery, but a rich cultural life many communities of similar sizes don’t have. “It’s very important to have access to the visual arts in our community because it reinforces the idea that art is for everyone. Every year we get an opportunity to expose young people to something creative to give them new things to think about and perhaps consider a future in the arts. We also provide an escape for people to step outside what they’re comfortable and familiar with to learn and experience something new. And for those for whom visual art isn’t new, we give them a place close to home to nurture their passion for the visual arts.”

Among the misperceptions she encounters is that the Art Center Gallery has an admission cost, which, of course, is false. Another is that art is only for “those other people.” “I’m still unsure who this is,” Norman said. “Art is for everyone; you don’t need an advanced degree or special knowledge to appreciate or enjoy an exhibition.”

One upcoming event for the public to enjoy is the Black Earth Film Festival September 30 to October 2. “This is Galesburg’s only independent film festival,” she said. “We’ve received more than 75 entries; the committee is working on selecting which films we’ll show. We have some wonderful films and look forward to putting together a fantastic film festival.”

Another coming attraction is an exhibition of hand-built ceramic sculptures by Kurt Brian Webb of Palatine, which takes place September 3 to October 1. “The work is large urns and pots, which each tells its own story,” Norman explained.

She said the Galesburg Civic Arts Center has several projects in the works, including expansion. “We just purchased the building adjacent to us, so we’ve been developing classes and workshops. We’ll be adjoining the spaces in the interior, increasing our gallery space within the next few years, as well as making dedicated classroom space.” AA!