Numerous “Shop Local” campaigns over the years have instilled the importance of supporting local retailers over big-box chains, and that is no less the case when it comes to the arts. Sure, you can purchase a large canvas print at Target and place it in a factory-made frame, but there’s nothing quite like owning an original painting—especially when adorned with a custom frame.
For over 25 years, Barb Milaccio of Exhibit A Gallery has been on a mission to bring joy into people’s homes and businesses by connecting them with local artists, while expertly framing everything from paintings to sports jerseys. Located along Prospect Road in Peoria Heights, this combination of a fine art gallery and framing shop offers a truly unique, artistic retail experience.
It’s All How You Frame It
The roots of framing date back to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, who would create borders around their paintings on walls and pottery. Wooden frames from the first century AD have been discovered in Egyptian tombs surrounding portraits of the deceased. During the Middle Ages, Europeans began to create hand-carved frames that would look more familiar to us today.
Fast forward to 1990. Barb Milaccio has just completed her degree in illustration and fine arts from the Savannah College of Art & Design. Having grown up with a love for the arts, she knew that she wanted to make a living out of it. While in school she worked at an art supply shop, where she learned the skill of custom framing. After graduation, she stayed on at the college to work in one of its galleries. When she moved back to central Illinois, she was anxious to land a job and start her career.
“I frantically went around searching for anything that remotely had to do with art here in the Peoria area,” she recalls. But opportunities were few and far between.
While visiting with her parents, her father asked how things were going. “And of course, I said I was completely frustrated,” Milaccio admits with a shrug. Ever supportive of her plans for a career in the arts, he asked if she had considered opening a business of her own. “Do a little homework,” he suggested, “and see what it takes.”
Milaccio knew she had two strengths in her framing and gallery work. When she thought about combining them into a business, a natural path forward made itself known. “It seemed like a good, simple fit,” she remarks, a hint of disbelief still in her voice. “It all started in the dining room of my teeny-tiny house in West Peoria.”
She opened a 900-square-foot custom framing store on North Knoxville in Peoria, started to exhibit local artists in the small space, and eventually expanded to include artists from outside the area as well. As she slowly built up a clientele, she concedes there were plenty of rough moments. “Twenty-five years ago, no one had a gallery space and custom framing that I knew of,” she recalls. “I felt like I had a niche that I could offer to the Peoria area.”
After nearly a decade at this location, Milaccio was ready to expand. She moved to the Junction City Shopping Center, pulled in more local artists, and her business began to flourish. Within six years, she was ready for yet another expansion and move—this to her current location in Peoria Heights, where she has become a fixture in the downtown business district.
Reflecting on what makes the custom framing at Exhibit A Gallery so appealing, she says it’s undoubtedly the personal touch they provide. “We know the names of the people who come in here, and between the two of us, you’re getting over 50 years of experience,” Milaccio notes, nodding at Sabrina Clark, her framing assistant. “I can’t tell you how many times someone has started off as a client and we became true friends.”
And she has framed a wide-ranging assortment of items over the years, as one might expect. “In the last two months, I think I’ve framed over 20 jerseys,” she declares. “I have framed guitars, wedding dresses, doilies, military clothing, Caterpillar pins…” She trails off. “And you know, with the COVID-19 situation, we have really framed people’s past. I think everyone is slowing down, looking at what means the most to them.”
There is an art to framing, Milaccio adds, and Exhibit A carries unique frames that cannot be found anywhere else—right down to moldings decorated with fish and turtles. “If somebody came to me and said they wanted 300 of something, I don’t think that would even interest me,” she states. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s just about the uniqueness of each piece.”
A Fresh New Start
Stepping into Exhibit A Gallery, however, frames are likely not the first thing you’ll notice. At the front of Milaccio’s shop, the art takes center stage. And unlike her previous locations, she only features artists from central Illinois. “When I moved here, I made the decision that I would just use local artists,” she explains. “People will come in and say, ‘Is this a gallery, or is it a frame shop?’ They are pleasantly surprised at how well the two work together.”
In March 2020, Milaccio was forced to temporarily shut down the business due to the pandemic. At the encouragement of her framing assistant, she decided it was time to freshen up their look. “It’s just like at home—you kind of get comfortable,” she explains. “And I needed to start fresh.” She asked all of the exhibiting artists to pick up their work, emptied the gallery and started anew with freshly painted walls. “We truly hit the reset button,” she adds.
When they reopened in June, Exhibit A Gallery hosted an exhibition of paintings by artist Carrie Pearce with wood table sculptures by James Pearce. Their next exhibit, “New Beginnings,” opened in August and embraced the spirit of Milaccio’s commitment to moving forward. “Each one of the works of art had to been created since January 1st of 2020,” she explains.
“I felt like I was starting my business over,” Milaccio says excitedly. “It felt good… uplifting!”
The current exhibit on display, “Art in Gift,” features more than 50 local artists in media ranging from painting and photography to glasswork, jewelry and beyond. With the holiday season approaching, Milaccio wants to remind everyone to consider purchasing locally made gifts. “There are so many elements to buying from a local artist,” she notes. “You’re supporting that individual person. You are supporting the local business, the local artists, their livelihood, and the passion of what they are doing.”
And for those who might feel nervous walking into a fine art gallery, Milaccio says they purposefully try to put everyone at ease. “We’re small enough that we can meet and greet everybody, and just share about the individual artists and their pieces,” she says. “I think that is one thing that is unique about us—we know the artists, what they do and how they do it, so we can share that with clients. You won’t get that everywhere.”
Milaccio says that people often ask about the furthest point of origin for the artwork on display. “When I say, ‘Delavan,’ they’re like, ‘Well, that’s not very far!’ When we say local, it’s local,” she stresses.
Whenever a piece is sold, she insists the client and the artist meet if at all possible. One client recently purchased a table from James Pearce… and when they finally met? “Oh my goodness, the stories and connections they made!” Milaccio exclaims. “You don’t get that when you just pop into other stores. I believe you get a closer attachment to what you have purchased when you make that connection with the artist.”
It is these kinds of moments that keep her going amid the challenges of running a small business. “It’s not always easy, but it’s the willingness to keep yourself out there—and you’ve got to have the community to support it,” she explains. “That’s why I’m still in business. People want that individual touch.”
Strength in Community
Milaccio is already planning her exhibitions for 2021. After the “Art as Gift” show closes at the end of January, there will be several exciting options—including a plein air show highlighting the sights of the Peoria area and a “clipboard” exhibit. (“Any kind of art that can fit on a clipboard,” she explains.) Because it is unknown what safety restrictions will be in place due to the pandemic, she suggests that people follow Exhibit A Gallery on Facebook and Instagram or check their website for the latest hours and information.
When you do pay a visit, Milaccio hopes you will check out the many other locally owned restaurants and businesses in Peoria Heights. “You could start your morning at Leaves ‘n Beans Coffee, work your way through lunch and dinner—go to I Know You Like A Book, our gallery, and end up at some kind of live event at the Betty Jayne [Center for the Performing Arts],” she suggests. “It’s awesome, and it’s for all ages, too. I love it when kids come in here and their mouths drop. They are in awe of what a piece of art is, and I love explaining that to them.”
As Milaccio looks back on her success, she credits the community’s willingness to support local businesses and the arts. “I think Peoria has such a strong arts community and they want to support the arts… They want to keep it alive,” she affirms. “We have a lot of small businesses in this town, and when our community supports them, it’s them saying, ‘I want you here.’” PM
Exhibit A Gallery is located at 4607 N. Prospect Road in Peoria Heights. Visit exhibitagallery.net for hours of operation, upcoming exhibitions and additional information.