The Peoria Art Guild has been celebrating and championing the arts since 1878. Having survived seemingly insurmountable challenges, both locally and nationally, its longstanding presence is a testament to the priority central Illinois places on arts and culture.
Since welcoming a new executive director in 2018, the organization has experienced tremendous growth—not only with its flagship event, the Fine Art Fair, but with expanding classes, gallery exhibits, outreach efforts and more. At 142 years old, the Guild is looking pretty good for its age. And if Shannon Cox has anything to do with it, this is only the beginning.
An Outsider Perspective
In speaking with Cox, it’s clear the head of the Peoria Art Guild is committed to spreading artwork beyond the city limits—she’ll often emphasize central Illinois over Peoria when referring to the local arts community. Her regional perspective is hardly surprising; as founder of the Pekin Academy of Fine Arts, she effectively established an arts hub outside of the more crowded Peoria market. While that organization is no longer active, it caught Peoria’s attention—a reminder that the love for art stretches far into the outlying and rural communities surrounding the city.
Because she did not arise as an arts leader within Peoria proper, Cox carries with her a self-confessed “outsider” point of view. “When I first took a studio in Pekin as a photographer, I was scared to death,” she admits. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know what I’m doing… I don’t know these artists!’ And after I met them, I realized… they’re just regular people. And they’re the coolest people!”
As she began to make a name for herself, Cox’s work caught the attention of leadership at the Peoria Art Guild, who approached her about running the Fine Art Fair. “When they first asked, I said no,” she recalls, reluctant to assume the responsibility without experience organizing an event of that size. But when informed she would be co-organizing it with Kim Sanders, she changed her mind. “She had event experience,” Cox affirms. “We just said, ‘Okay, let’s do this!’”
That first year, in 2018, was a resounding success. Soon after, the Guild asked Cox to step in as executive director. And just like that, she was tasked with not only maintaining the Fine Art Fair’s high standards, but growing one of Peoria’s oldest arts organizations.
Carrying on Tradition
Now entering its 58th year, the Fine Art Fair is a jewel of Peoria culture—ranked 26th in the nation by Sunshine Magazine, based on feedback from the participating artists. “We have a history of spoiling the artists,” Cox notes with a smile. “We feed them all weekend through in-kind donations from places like Tanner’s and Costco.” Last year, Dr. Carl Soderstrom of Soderstrom Skin Institute offered to throw a party for the artists at “The Castle,” his opulent event space on Grandview Drive. “The artists were so excited!” Cox explains. “That is why we are rated so highly. It’s years and years of dedication.”
When Cox agreed to co-organize the Fine Art Fair, she wanted to focus on inclusion. Over the past two years, local artists have had a larger presence at the fair, though the blind jury process has not changed. She also set up an area where local arts groups could educate the public about their programs, which highlighted another top priority: collaboration with other organizations. “We have to work together,” she declares. “When people come who haven’t been to Peoria, they hit that area and they’re like, Wow, Peoria has a lot to offer!”
The artists have also done consistently well with their sales—and the Guild’s messaging reflects the importance of that measure. Since their first year organizing the fair, Cox and Sanders implemented a wildly successful “I Buy Art” campaign, first launched by the Peoria-based design company Collecture. In the days leading up to the fair, they ask local arts influencers to take selfies with “I Buy Art” mugs, driving that message across social media. They also distribute “I Buy Art” buttons to everyone who purchases artwork. “I’ve actually had other fairs contact me,” Cox adds. “They heard about it and wanted to do it, too.”
Besides bringing world-class artwork to Peoria, the fair offers other opportunities as well. Patrons get to work on public murals, children are able to create free artwork, and families can sit back and listen to music. The conscious intention is to serve the entire community. “You have to be able to relate to all walks of life… not just those who can afford to buy art,” Cox says. “I want to be able to relate to everybody so they get that exposure and see something that might inspire them.”
Arts & Education
The Fine Art Fair looms large over the Peoria Art Guild, and for good reason. For years it has supplied the funds needed to keep the organization afloat. “It has always been a big part of what drives our mission—it feeds back into our programs,” Cox explains. “But now that we have our classes ramped back up, the balance is shifting a little bit.”
Cox has invested a lot of effort into reviving the Guild’s educational offerings, with classes for everything from paper making to metal embossing. “I’m looking at what the community already has and trying to bring in things that are different,” she explains. “For instance… we’ve developed a whole room dedicated to fiber arts. Our classes are for basic sewing, like how to hem pants… We have to teach them those things before we can say, ‘Okay, now you can do some really cool stuff with fiber!’”
The Guild is also focusing more on children, offering a STEAM-based summer camp, MAP (Mentor Apprentice Program) classes and more. “Our kids’ classes are kind of unique, I believe. We have a six-week series that has been pretty popular,” she notes. “What’s cool about it is they learn for six weeks, they become friends, and then we take their work and set it up at First Friday. They bring grandma, grandpa and the neighbors to see their work.”
For Cox, helping children understand the importance of the arts is critical not only for their own personal development, but for the future of the Peoria Art Guild. “We’ve been here 140 years,” she chuckles. “Someone’s got to carry it on!”
Through all of these efforts Cox has strived to create a culture of inclusivity, correcting the misconception that a Guild membership is required to participate. “We want you to be a member—we’d love that!” she says. “But you don’t have to be a member to walk through our doors or take that class.”
Aside from the Fine Art Fair and its classes, the Guild has an active gallery offering regular exhibitions at its home in downtown Peoria. This month, the gallery is scheduled to host a Peoria Art Guild member’s show. With the COVID-19 outbreak, however, Cox admits she may have to find creative ways to showcase their work. “We could do a virtual live feed of the art,” she offers. “And if people want to purchase the work, they can send a message. Who knows—it might even be a cool, new concept!”
As the Guild enters an era of unparalleled uncertainty, Cox is grateful for her staff and the faithful volunteers who keep the organization running. “It’s not just me,” she is quick to note. “I have Jeff and John Heintzman, who are here constantly working as volunteers; Jennie Hawkey, a volunteer who helps with our education; Monica Lebron, our office manager… my board. It goes on and on.”
Looking ahead, Cox not only hopes to grow the Guild’s current programs, but to reach out to other cities and find new ways to collaborate. “There’s so much I want to do, and not enough time,” she admits with a laugh. But more than anything, what drives her is the promise of helping other artists.
For instance, one prominent local artist had never been part of an art fair before last year. “She did amazing at our fair… and she met the lady next to her, who gave her a resource for another fair down in Florida. So now she’s on the fair circuit!” Cox says, beaming. “To be an organization that gives artists those opportunities—that’s what it’s all about.”
At the end of the day, she truly hopes everyone will feel comfortable coming to the Peoria Art Guild’s gallery, stopping by the Fine Art Fair, or trying one of their classes. And to those who are still uncertain, she says: “Just come. I promise you’ll like it!” PM