Curating the Fine Arts

by Liz Scoville

The Fine Arts Society of Peoria celebrates 55 years of bringing arts and culture to the region.

In 1962, nine women gathered in the home of Mrs. J. Russel Coulter to discuss new ways to bring fine arts, culture and history to the Peoria area. The result was a new arts organization, a mission—“to provide a guided program for exploration of the arts”—and an annual series of lectures from artists, academics and creative professionals from across the country. Over half a century later, the Fine Arts Society of Peoria continues to host seven programs each year, bringing a wide range of sophisticated learning opportunities to the region.

A History of Learning
Since its first lecture on printmaking in October 1962, the Fine Arts Society has sponsored roughly 400 presentations and brought nearly 300 speakers to Peoria. From that first season, which also included lectures on Peruvian art, antique china and silver, and “Art in the Atomic Age,” to its golden anniversary, highlighted by presentations on Niagara Falls, the Dead Sea Scrolls and costume design for Shakespeare plays, the topics have been all over the cultural map: a hallmark of the organization.

This thematic diversity, says publicity chair Trudy Muller, derives from speakers recruited locally, nationally and even internationally by a board dedicated to creating an enticing seasonal lineup. “We have a program committee, and it’s their responsibility to find speakers,” she explains. “The basic goal is the same: let’s bring in people to help us learn more about the arts and their role in history and culture. And to make it interesting—make it fun.”

The Society’s lectures were initially presented in the Glen Oak Pavilion (now the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum), before moving to Lakeview Center of the Arts and Sciences when it opened in 1965. “The Fine Arts Society was very supportive of Lakeview Center’s creation,” Muller notes. “At its opening ceremony, they put a time capsule under the lobby, and some of the Fine Arts [Society] documents were put in the capsule. The fine arts were part of making Lakeview Center happen.”

In the early ‘70s, the multi-faceted Lakeview Center became Lakeview Museum, and for decades, the Fine Arts Society called it home. When Lakeview moved downtown and was reborn as the Peoria Riverfront Museum in 2012, the group hosted its lectures at various locations before returning to the museum in 2015.

Connections of Consequence
Each season of programming runs from October to May, with a month-long break in January. The 2016-2017 season commenced with a trio of presentations by John W. Franklin, Director of Partnerships and International Programs at the newly-opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. His lectures coincided with the museum’s fall opening—the 19th museum of the Smithsonian Institution, and the only one of its kind dedicated solely to African-American history and culture.

Franklin’s visit, two years in the making, was an enormous undertaking for the Fine Arts Society. In collaboration with associates from the African American Hall of Fame Museum and the Concerned African American Retirees organization, Society members worked hard to make it a reality. And with heightened community interest, they were able to schedule two lectures at the museum, plus a third presentation at Manual Academy to engage local students.

Bennett Johnson, Fine Arts Society vice president of programs, says Franklin was happy to extend his stay in order to bring his story to a wider audience. With a sharp wit and commanding presence, he was able to connect the dots between the African-American experience and the African diaspora in the rest of the Americas, the Caribbean and the world. He discussed the challenges of building the new museum, explained the inspiration for its design, and told stories of the artifacts collected for exhibition—a thoroughly captivating presentation.

“He hit it out of the park,” Johnson notes. “He was the perfect speaker. We were so privileged to have had him.”

More than 500 people had the opportunity to hear Franklin’s message, making it one of the Society’s largest—and most meaningful—programs to date. “I feel so grateful to so many people who helped make the John Franklin talk a success,” Johnson adds. “It was a tremendous effort—probably more than we’ve ever done.”

A Feast of Diversity
In February, the Fine Arts Society will resume its current season of thought-provoking lectures with a demonstration of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony by University of Illinois professor Jennifer Gunji-Ballsrud. The following months bring a lecture on American artists in pre-World War I Giverny, France; an in-depth look at the Sistine Chapel; and a discussion of one person’s experience as artist in residence at the Field Museum in Chicago.

According to Johnson, the variety of interests being explored demonstrates the Society’s dedication to keeping an open mind—and an expansive definition of the fine arts. “We try to make it a feast of diversity,” he explains, “something that would not necessarily be available to Peorians… [including] music, photography and other things that stretch the idea of so-called ‘fine arts.’”

Muller adds that the programming itself isn’t the only draw. “I think getting to meet the lecturers is a great benefit,” she says. “All of our lectures include a social time, when people have the opportunity to talk with him or her, and ask questions… And it’s been fun to meet other members of the Society, because they have very interesting backgrounds—and a variety of backgrounds.”

With its long history of curating unique learning opportunities, the Fine Arts Society of Peoria shows no sign of slowing down—in fact, its speaker lineup for 2017-18 is already nearly solidified. While working to keep the programming dynamic, its members are continually reminded of the enlightening nature of the arts—and the joys of sharing that knowledge with others. “To have people come back and say, ‘That was the best lecture I ever heard!’” Johnson declares. “[That] is so satisfying.” a&s

To learn more about the Fine Arts Society of Peoria, visit