New Generations at the Spring Celebration

by Liz Scoville

The talent showcase heightens awareness of the arts as a vital component of young people’s development.

For more than 30 years, the Gerald M. Brookhart Arts in Education Spring Celebration has graced the Courthouse Plaza in downtown Peoria, allowing students from across the region to showcase their creative gifts to the community. From mid-April through most of May, singers, musicians, visual artists and more come together at lunchtime—and this year is set for another successful display of young talent.

It’s a long-standing hallmark of central Illinois—a “harbinger of spring,” remarks program director Mary Rous. It’s also been a generational affair, with past participants now parents with talented children of their own. Their abilities have proven diverse, a mix of more than 250 performances—including choir, dance, drama and speech—with exhibits, and sometimes demonstrations, of the visual arts: painting, drawing, photography, ceramics, woodworking, fiber arts and beyond. “Anything that you can think of is art,” Rous adds. “It’s creativity at its finest.”

Art in the Park
The idea behind the Spring Celebration first surfaced in 1985 from Gerald Brookhart, superintendent of the Peoria County Regional Office of Education—a response to the reduction of fine arts curricula in area schools. Under Brookhart’s leadership, the ROE hosted the inaugural program the following spring, selecting the plaza outside the Peoria County Courthouse as a prime location for its lunchtime crowds and park-like setting. “He wanted the community to see the good things that were happening,” Rous notes, “and the Courthouse Plaza was just a beautiful venue.”

The initial event was a week-long showcase involving 1,000 students, 30 teachers and 12 Peoria County schools. Today, it has grown into a seven-county affair—featuring more than 12,000 students, 400 teachers and 100 schools from Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford, Marshall, Fulton, Henry and McLean counties—but the location has remained the same. Now running five to six weeks, the mid-day event features three stages for concurrent performances—at least two are typically in use at any given time, Rous says. Following Brookhart’s retirement in 2013, it was branded the Gerald M. Brookhart Arts in Education Spring Celebration in his honor, and he continues to be highly involved today.

A Community Partnership
Since its inception, the Spring Celebration has been a team effort: a collaboration of city, county and state governments, educational institutions, corporations and small businesses, and key individuals. “The Peoria County Courthouse grounds staff prepares the plaza for us and cleans up after each day,” Rous says. “The beautiful flowers they plant each year are the perfect backdrop.” Parking meters are bagged by City of Peoria staff to ensure the children’s safe arrival and departure, while business and organizational sponsors have proven critical to the program’s longevity and continued growth.

Last year, the event partnered with Sculpture Walk Peoria to distribute free educational coloring books to the students, which both further encourages their pursuit of the arts, and helps to embed them within the cultural fabric of their community. Meanwhile, parents, visitors and other spectators can spend time exploring the downtown area, enhancing patronage within the city.

In addition to continuing its collaboration with Sculpture Walk Peoria, this year’s Spring Celebration will introduce “Jazz Day” on Friday, April 28th—coinciding with International Jazz Day two days later. A number of jazz-focused student groups will perform alongside guest performers Dr. Todd Kelly and the Bradley University Jazz Ensemble, joining artists and aficionados all over the world in highlighting jazz and its diplomatic role uniting people in all corners of the globe.

Boosting Creativity and Confidence
As she works to keep funding and community support steady and strong, Rous is excited to see the next wave of students shine at the plaza… in whatever art form they choose. Having been engaged with the Spring Celebration in one form or another since its second year, she continues to hear from former students—now successful professionals across the country—reflecting on its positive impact on their lives. It’s a testament, Rous says, to the power of artistic expression and a supportive community for children stepping out of their comfort zones.

“Any time you can get a child in… an environment where they are performing or out seeing an audience, they gain confidence,” she explains. “Maybe you’re not going to be a singer… [or] perform in a band the rest of your life, [but] you gain confidence. You become a better community member. And we’ve seen that.” a&s

The 2017 GMB Arts in Education Spring Celebration takes place on weekdays from 11am to 1:30pm, April 19 - May 24, 2017 at the Peoria County Courthouse Plaza. For a complete calendar of events or more information, visit


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