A rich tapestry of initiatives is bringing the city to life… and offering unique experiences for visitors and residents alike.
The recent unveiling of Preston Jackson’s “Richard Pryor: More Than Just a Comedian” sculpture drew gasps from hundreds… and placed Peoria squarely in the national and international spotlight. As the plastic tarp was removed, the crowd erupted in applause. “Finally!” someone remarked—a sentiment that was repeated not just here in Peoria, but by devoted fans of the comedian all over the world.
Peoria does not often receive such outside attention for its local arts scene—but that is changing quickly. The monthly appearance of fresh artwork draws new and returning visitors alike to the artist studios on the First Friday circuit, and it’s more than just art: each studio offers a unique atmosphere and distinctive experiences. In May, for example, The Atelier hosted “Cosmic” Colt Sandberg, son of the late city councilman Gary Sandberg, who recently returned to Peoria after decades as a street performer overseas. Sandberg’s entertaining street show—featuring fire juggling, handmade stilts and a “drowning banana”—drew cheers and laughs from the crowd of curious onlookers.
And the venues for such artists are expanding as well. Sandberg himself is renovating a building in the Warehouse District—a future addition to Peoria’s growing arts scene. The Speakeasy Art Center in Pekin now runs a shuttle between its gallery and Studios on Sheridan in Peoria, offering visitors an easy way to explore multiple sites on both sides of the river. Everywhere you turn, Peoria’s arts community is growing—and so is its audience.
Signaling a Renaissance
The best way to promote local art is to allow people to see it—and beginning in June, those driving through central Illinois will see local art at an unusually large scale: on 14’ x 48’ billboards. A collaborative effort between Adams Outdoor Advertising and ArtsPartners of Central Illinois, ArtPop Peoria is a national program that’s slowly showing up in cities across the country. The concept is simple: promote local artwork through available billboard space.
The call for entries in March yielded nearly 200 submissions of a variety of images—from oil paintings to handmade dresses to intricate jewelry—showcasing the diversity of area talent. A jury selected four of the five winning artists, with the public deciding the fifth in a People’s Choice Contest. These five images will rotate on billboards across the region for the next year.
We may be known for our farms and our big yellow machines, but ArtPop Peoria offers evidence of an evolving emphasis on the arts and culture in central Illinois. “It is a very visible symbol of the renaissance going on in Peoria,” note ArtPop Peoria committee members Doug and Eileen Leunig. “A person driving through on I-74… is going to know that we have more to offer than strip malls and fast food. When you combine ArtPop Peoria with First Fridays, Sculpture Walk Peoria, our multiple galleries and the Riverfront Museum, you have an arts destination.”
A Critical Mass
The idea of making Peoria an arts destination was also on the mind of Sculpture Walk Peoria founder and president Joe Richey, inspired by Richard Florida’s notion of the creative class—21st-century professionals, from engineers to artists, who are driving innovation and economic development across the country. But in order to attract this coveted group, cities must offer an environment that values and promotes creative endeavors.
“It is making the scene—Sculpture Walk Peoria will change Peoria forever,” Richey declares. “It’s time to create a creative economy here and now.” The project, now in its inaugural year, is an outdoor, juried exhibition in the Warehouse District that will feature new sculptures rotating on a yearly basis. The committee hoped to have 10 charter sponsors in its first year, each providing the funding to install and maintain a new sculpture for three years. But public support far exceeded expectations, and enough funds were raised to place 15 sculptures on Washington Street, with hopes of further expansion in 2016—providing cultural tourists another reason to come back.
That return audience is essential to a city’s success as a destination, and it requires a critical mass of events and attractions—the collaborative efforts of businesses, artists, volunteers and arts organizations. Kim Armstrong, a Sculpture Walk Peoria volunteer and former volunteer co-chair of the Peoria Art Guild’s Fine Art Fair, has years of experience in this area. “It is very much a chicken-and-egg challenge,” she remarks. “Without attractions, you don’t have public traffic. Without public traffic, you don’t have business, retail [or] entertainment.”
With the continued development of its Warehouse District, Peoria has a prime opportunity to bring this to fruition. Sculpture Walk Peoria is just one of the many new features along the Washington Street corridor—joining the Richard Pryor sculpture, Charles Strain’s “Treble Clef,” Bruce White’s “Portal,” and soon, another piece from Preston Jackson. Meanwhile, the anticipation of a mural project led by Doug and Eileen Leunig has many excited about the possibility of adding art to the towering bricks above Washington Street.
“All of this… comes together with the established Peoria Riverfront Museum, CIAO First Fridays, the Contemporary Art Center, Foster Center for the Arts and the Peoria Symphony!” exclaims Dr. Kip Strasma, member of the Sculpture Walk Peoria committee and Downtown Advisory Commission. “It’s all there downtown now.”
The team at the Peoria Civic Center understands the challenges of cultural tourism as well as anyone. With business tending to slow in the month of August, they came together last year to create an event that would generate substantial public interest. They asked Peoria’s arts community a question: “What if we gave you the building for the weekend?” After a series of meetings, the Civic Center teamed up with ArtsPartners and the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Ignite Peoria—a large-scale celebration of the arts and creativity—took shape.
The Ignite Peoria team, led by Kathy Chitwood, was supported by Suzette Boulais and Steve Fairbanks of ArtsPartners, Megan Pedigo of the Civic Center, and Kaci Osborne of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Among their primary goals was to make the local arts accessible to people from all walks of life. Chitwood wanted to challenge visitors to think about art differently—and find their “creative selves.” As she puts it: “When people ask, What is art?, my response is, What is not art?” When the doors opened to the Ignite Peoria artists, the team knew the public would show up—but they had no idea just how many. When it was all said and done, about 6,500 people came through in one day—a tremendous success for a first-year event.
With Chitwood prodding the artists for “creation stations”—hands-on areas to try out new artistic mediums and tools—thousands of people were creating new things together at Ignite. While many of the booths featured traditional art forms, others challenged visitors to think about creativity in fresh, new ways. River City Labs, Peoria’s makerspace, offered 3D printing demonstrations using printers they built from scratch. By cleverly featuring a life-sized R2D2 robot from Star Wars, many of the kids in attendance connected with the creative aspects of their hobbies. Chitwood affectionately refers to this group as her “nerd artists.” “There is a huge creative aspect to ‘nerd art,’” she says. “They see a need and create something in response. It expands our definition of what is creative.”
Building on last year’s success, this August’s Ignite Peoria promises to be even bigger and better. The “All Or Nothing” custom car show, led by Darius Donaldson, is expanding into the Civic Center Arena, while World Ignite vendors will return with more extensive food options and international cultural displays. Fashion Ignite—whose designs and photography have been featured in major fashion publications over the last year—will also return. Ultimately, it’s hoped that Ignite will evolve into an entire weekend of events. This year’s event coincides with August’s First Friday, giving locals and tourists an opportunity to take that idea for a test drive.
And by encompassing such a broad range of activity, Chitwood adds, one can experience all of the diverse creative energies swirling about Peoria. “It challenges people’s ideas about what could be going on in the city”—yet another building block in this cultural renaissance.
Working in Harmony
From the Peoria Art Guild’s Fine Art Fair—the region’s longtime signature cultural event—to Sculpture Walk Peoria’s opening on June 6th, to an array of artist studios, museums and festivals, the arts are flourishing in Peoria. As this growth continues, Jennifer Gordon, ArtsPartners’ new executive director, sees it as an opportunity for the public—residents and visitors alike—to become invested in our local culture.
“The arts bring our city to life,” she declares. “Sidewalks become sculpture galleries for all to enjoy. Billboards become spaces that inspire and add beauty to our daily commute. Music in our concert halls, drama and dance on our stages, art studios and homes filled with works that enthuse and provoke—all of these pieces in harmony create a rich and flavorful culture that others will want to experience and ultimately become a part of.” iBi
Maegan Gilliland is a board member of ArtsPartners of Central Illinois and committee member for ArtPop Peoria and Sculpture Walk Peoria. For more information, visit artspartners.net.