Art Works...

...And We’re Workin’ It!
by Jonathan Wright
Photography by David Vernon

In November, the local arts community rolled out the red carpet for National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman, who visited Peoria to kick off his “Art Works” national listening tour. “Art Works” is Landesman’s self-proclaimed guiding principle for his tenure at the NEA, which, he explains, means three things:

  1. “Art works” is a noun. They are the books, crafts, dances, designs, drawings, films, installations, music, musicals, paintings, plays, performances, poetry, textiles and sculptures that are the creation of artists.
  2. “Art works” is a verb. Art works on and within people to change and inspire them; it addresses the need people have to create, to imagine, to aspire to something more. 
  3. “Art works” is a declarative sentence. Arts jobs are real jobs that are part of the real economy. Art workers pay taxes, and art contributes to economic growth, neighborhood revitalization, and the livability of American towns and cities.

The “Art Works” tour is intended to highlight how the arts are being used by communities across the country to spur economic growth and neighborhood revitalization.

Stray Remark Opens Doors
Landesman’s now-infamous remark to the New York Times in August paved the way for his November visit. “I don’t know if there’s a theater in Peoria,” he told the paper, “but I would bet that it’s not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman.” Local arts advocates were understandably irked by the comments, but seized the opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade.

Within days, Suzette Boulais, executive director of ArtsPartners of Central Illinois, and Kathy Chitwood, executive director of Eastlight Theatre, sent Landesman an email, assuring him that “we have theaters in Peoria, and then some!” and inviting him for a visit. To the surprise of everyone, they received an immediate response from the newly confirmed chairman. “I will absolutely visit you,” he wrote, and followed up on that promise just a few short months later.

The Whirlwind Tour

On November 6th, after breakfast and a radio interview, the chairman’s day in Peoria began with a tour of the Warehouse District, accompanied by Boulais and Chitwood—his “new best friends”—and a coterie of developers, artists and city officials. He paid visits to the Murray Building and the Foster Arts Center and stopped by the studio of world-renowned artist Lonnie Stewart, before heading to the Civic Center for an economic development roundtable discussion with more than 65 civic, business and arts leaders, including Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis and East Peoria Mayor Dave Mingus.

“It was a great back-and-forth,” reported Landesman. “The dialogue didn’t stop. It could have gone on for another day or two, I felt like, when I left.”

After lunching at Steak & Shake—the St. Louis native’s favorite restaurant—Landesman participated in an hour-long Q&A session with arts leaders at WTVP, followed by a taping of At Issue, the station’s ongoing, locally produced public affairs program.

A Reverberating Ovation
Finally, after an opening reception at East Peoria Community High School, Landesman capped off the day by taking in an Eastlight Theatre performance of the musical Rent, produced especially—and enthusiastically—for his visit.

“We could feel the energy before we got on stage,” exclaimed cast member Coleen Haddock to the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “The whole audience was on fire! It was so exciting!”

The production drew an ovation that reverberated throughout the crowded auditorium. Even the “elite press corps” that followed Rocco Landesman to the River City admitted to its own misinformed perception of Peoria arts. “We were both dreading that community theater production of Rent,” confessed Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News, before adding, “We were pleasantly surprised, as we had been all day long.”

And so it was that an offhand remark took on larger-than-life proportions and led to a day that no one would have expected. Such is the value of dialogue—you just never know.

Harnessing the Future
The arts community has been buzzing with energy and enthusiasm ever since the NEA chairman came to town. And now, with Landesman’s visit in the rear-view mirror, it is up to the local arts community to transform the moment into something more lasting. ArtsPartners, along with members of the arts community, is working to harness this enthusiasm and build on it so the arts become an even more vital component of our cultural and economic landscape.

“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,” exclaimed ArtsPartners’ Boulais. “Rocco repeatedly reminded us that members of the arts community must unify efforts and show strength in numbers. We can do this by providing grassroots opportunities for members of the arts community to discover ways to work together, cross-promote each other’s work and present a more unified voice to city leaders.”

Such collaborative advocacy becomes even more important in light of deep cuts in funding for the arts at all levels of government. Arts advocates need to be visible and plainly state their case for the arts as an essential, long-range component to a city’s quality of life and economic development. ArtsPartners is helping to lead the charge, and new organizations like ci|creative are playing a similar role in bringing the creative community together.

The effects of Rocco Landesman’s Peoria visit are still being felt. Expect more on this front in 2010. a&s