Peoria Arts: A Decade Retrospective

Sometimes you have to look back to see how far you’ve come.
by Jonathan Wright
Rocco Landesman in Peoria
Since NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman’s visit in 2009, Peoria’s arts community has grown substantially. Photo by David Vernon

In November of 2009, Peoria made national news when Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, brought his “Art Works” listening tour to town. In the wake of the Great Recession, Landesman’s signature initiative sought to highlight how the arts were being utilized across the country to spur economic growth and neighborhood revitalization. Alongside local public officials and business leaders, Peoria’s arts community rolled out the red carpet for the NEA chairman’s visit. In retrospect, it could be seen as the beginning of a new chapter for the local arts scene. 

“We certainly don’t want such high-profile attention to have been just one day when the Peoria arts community’s light shone brightly, but then faded into a nice PR memory,” mused Suzette Boulais, executive director of ArtsPartners of Central Illinois, at the time. Instead, all of the energy and enthusiasm left in the wake of Landesman’s visit was harnessed—and transformed into something more lasting. 

This didn’t happen because of any single person, group or organization. Rather, it took place through the efforts of many: a community-wide mosaic of intersecting passions, demonstrating the critical value of the arts to our region’s cultural and economic landscape. Today, as arts advocates tout Peoria’s potential as a national (or even international) arts destination, let’s take stock of the great progress the local arts community has made over the last decade. 

First Friday Studio Tours
Long before the NEA chairman’s visit, artists were expressing their desire to establish an art walk in Peoria, with studios and galleries opening their doors in conjunction to interact with the public. “I know there’s an interest in the community,” said one local artist in 2008. “It’s just a matter of getting it going.” Less than two years later, a group of Peoria artists took on this mission, joining forces as the Central Illinois Artists Organization (CIAO). By February of 2011, the First Friday studio tours were born. 

In the eight years since CIAO’s formation, there has been no better barometer of the local arts scene than the widespread popularity of First Fridays. The monthly event is a staple for many Peorians, bringing the talents of local artists into the public arena. It has also spurred the creation of similar programs around the region, including the Tazewell Art Loop in Morton, Pekin, Tremont and Delavan (on fourth Fridays) and the Second Fridays initiative in Peoria Heights.

New Arts Institutions
With the First Friday concept still in its infancy, 2012 saw the establishment of two significant pillars of the arts in Peoria. Near the corner of West Main and Sheridan, the opening of Studios on Sheridan brought new artist studios, a large gallery, and a host of creative businesses into a formerly abandoned warehouse. The result: instant vibrancy. This grassroots intermingling continues to show how business and the arts can work together to breathe new life into a neighborhood.

Meanwhile in downtown Peoria, the October 2012 opening of the Peoria Riverfront Museum brought a community’s long-held dream to fruition. The result of a dozen years of work by thousands of individuals, it was a collaboration on an unusually grand scale. Naturally, the first featured exhibition at the new museum was the CIAO & Friends Invitational, highlighting the work of nearly 100 artists from the Tri-County area—from first-time exhibitors to the nationally known. And with that, the PRM joined the Peoria Civic Center as a titan amongst downtown Peoria’s cultural institutions.

Ignite Peoria kickoff - Tom Ruhland
Ignite Peoria kickoff at the Peoria Civic Center, 2014. Photo by Tom Ruhland

ArtsPartners Initiatives
Founded in 1999, ArtsPartners of Central Illinois celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The organization's longstanding mission—to build awareness and support the arts for the economic and cultural enrichment of Greater Peoria—has served the region well. In recent years, ArtsPartners has raised the bar by facilitating a number of impactful programs of its own.

First, in August 2014, came Ignite Peoria—a daylong celebration of creativity featuring hundreds of local artists, makers, performers and more, all under one roof. A collaboration with the Peoria Civic Center, Ignite has become a mainstay on the summer calendars of families throughout the region. That it remains free to the public is key to ensuring that arts and cultural offerings are not just for the well-heeled.

The following spring, another pair of ArtsPartners initiatives made their debut in central Illinois. Sculpture Walk Peoria brought a rotating cast of sculptures to beautify Peoria’s emerging Warehouse District, while ArtPop Peoria placed the original work of local artists high in the sky on Adams Outdoor billboards. Sculpture Walk continues to drive momentum in the Warehouse District, where much development has taken place in recent years. ArtPop has not only brightened local commutes, it’s boosted the livelihood of a not-insignificant number of Peoria artists. 

Preston Jackson’s sculpture of Richard Pryor was installed in 2015.
Preston Jackson’s sculpture of Richard Pryor, installed in 2015

Finally, in 2016, ArtsPartners launched The Business of Art—a day of workshops, seminars and discussion designed to connect entrepreneurial artists with professionals who can help them navigate the world of business. The event has grown every year since, helping a range of creatives make a living from their artistic passions.

Public Art Everywhere
Public art has been integral to Peoria ever since sculptors Preston Jackson and Bob Emser, founders of the Contemporary Art Center, launched a sculpture walk along the riverfront in the early nineties. It’s taken a while for the rest of us to catch up with their vision, but over the last five years, public art in Peoria has simply exploded. 

The 2014 installation of Bruce White’s “Portal” sculpture in the Warehouse District—a gift from the late George and Norma Kottemann—was quickly followed by John and Sharon Amdall’s gift of Charles Strain’s “Treble Clef,” celebrating the cultural leadership of WTVP and the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. In 2015, Preston Jackson’s bronze depiction of hometown legend Richard Pryor finally became a reality, joining Sculpture Walk Peoria’s inaugural lineup of public sculpture on Washington Street. 

Around the same time, murals started popping up around town, benefiting from ordinance changes passed by the Peoria City Council. From Wisconsin Avenue to MacArthur Highway, from West Main to Western Avenue, they have brought vibrancy and color to neighborhoods that needed it—and the growth of public art has only increased with time. 

The Village of Peoria Heights leveraged the recent gift of a half dozen Bruce White sculptures to underscore its own growth, while local purchases from four years of Sculpture Walk Peoria have made 11 sculptures permanent fixtures on the local landscape. Last October, the Big Picture Initiative took public art to new heights with its inaugural street festival and the installation of “Abraham Blue,” Big Picture co-founder Doug Leunig’s 30’ x 50’ mural depicting our nation’s 16th president. Its prominent location on the side of the Peoria County Courthouse is a sure sign that mainstream Peoria has embraced public art.

Abraham Blue by Doug Leunig
Doug Leunig’s “Abraham Blue,” featured on the side of the Peoria County Courthouse, signals that Peoria has embraced public art.

Arts Education for All
Another pillar of the Big Picture Initiative is arts education for all ages. Over the last 18 months, the nonprofit organization, founded by arts advocates Doug and Eileen Leunig, has hired artists to teach in afterschool programs at the East Bluff Community Center, Common Place and Peoria Public Schools. Not only does this ensure that artists are paid for their work, it fills a gap in today’s public education system. In addition, Big Picture has teamed up with another dynamic duo to bring arts education to children and adults across Peoria. 

ART, Inc., the brainchild of Jonathon and Nikki Romain, is working to transform the former Greeley School building into a community arts center. Teachers from ART, Inc. are already working their magic in Peoria classrooms, and this summer, the organization  will kick off its first-ever youth summer camp, featuring coding, filmmaking, drama, dance, visual arts and animation classes. Over time, these efforts are sure to transform many lives—instilling creativity and critical thinking into young and old alike. 

Ebb and Flow
Like creativity itself, Peoria’s arts community is never static. Venues, artists, programs and patrons may come and go, but something or someone else always rises to take their place. 

Bradley University continues to provide a pipeline of fresh new talent, while groups like Yaku, Project 1612 and the Emerging Artists Collective have injected a progressive, youthful spirit into Peoria’s cultural offerings. They join longstanding groups like the Peoria Art Guild, Contemporary Art Center, Peoria Players Theatre, Prairie Center of the Arts, Peoria Symphony Orchestra and many others that make our region beautiful and vibrant. Because of their collective work, Peoria’s arts community is bigger and better than ever. PM

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