Peoria Riverfront Museum

A Community-Wide Collaboration
by Jonathan Wright
Artist portraits by Doug & Eileen Leunig

This fall, one of the largest development projects in Peoria history comes to an end when an unprecedented cultural campus springs to life.

October 20th. Mark your calendars, if they’re not already. For those who’ve been living under a rock, that is when the Peoria Riverfront Museum and Caterpillar Visitors Center will open their doors to the public for the first time.

A dozen years of work by thousands of people will culminate in a grand opening unlike any this community has ever seen. The road has been long and the challenges many, but the steady hand of perseverance has held it all together through thick and thin. From its very inception, every aspect of this project has been a collaborative effort. In fact, collaboration was encoded into the very DNA of the group that spearheaded the project, and that spirit will continue in a series of events leading up to the grand opening.

Interconnecting Visions

Twelve years ago, responding to requests for assistance from a number of organizations, then-Congressman Ray LaHood provided leadership in forming the Museum Collaboration Group, which included representatives of Lakeview Museum, Caterpillar Inc., Peoria Historical Society, Illinois High School Association, African American Hall of Fame Museum, Peoria Regional Museum Society, the Heartland Foundation and the Nature Conservancy. These groups agreed to partner together on a common purpose: to create a single, new museum that would be a regional draw throughout central Illinois.

That eight groups with diverse goals and outlooks would come together on such a project is remarkable, to be sure. But the nature of this collaboration extends beyond even the partner organizations—and their more than 4,000 members, who provided valuable input throughout. From the contest to name the museum to the passage of a sales tax referendum to fill the final gap in funding, community involvement has been paramount. Strong support from business, labor and all levels of government—from Peoria to Springfield to DC—were all essential in making this happen.

Those who recall the birth of Lakeview Museum may experience a bit of déjà vu, as it came together under similar circumstances. In 1954, with numerous concepts for a museum floating about, 26 groups melded their visions together, and the result was Lakeview Museum, whose interdisciplinary approach to art, history and science offered an ideal synthesis. After a successful capital campaign in 1961, the planetarium opened in 1963, followed by the galleries and support facilities two years later. It took just over a decade for all of the pieces to fall into place—not unlike the new museum. It takes time for a project of such magnitude to come together.

“It was very visionary, 50 years ago, that 26 different organizations got together, put their differences aside, and focused on their similarities and what they could do in the community,” says Jim Richerson, the museum’s president and CEO. “The flavor and feeling and power of collaboration have continually lived on in this community—that’s what made this possible.”

All About the Arts

This fall, that collaborative flavor will carry over into a month-long celebration tied to the museum’s opening. It doesn’t begin on October 20th—nor does it end there.

Working with the Central Illinois Artists Organization (CIAO), whose First Fridays art walk has been a runaway success, the first featured exhibit at the new museum will highlight artists from the Tri-County Area. “When you think about our focus on lifelong learning, innovation and creativity, what better way to open than with our own creativity and innovation—our local artists?” explains Richerson. “We wanted to be part of the neighborhood, and this is a great fit.”

Curated by CIAO artists Doug and Eileen Leunig, the CIAO and Friends Invitational will run at the museum from October 20th to March 3rd. “More than 200 artists from the Peoria area submitted over 500 works of art for consideration,” says Doug Leunig. “Many of these artists sell their work in galleries across the country and have won national awards. We are delighted to be the curators of this exhibit showcasing local talent to a larger audience.”

October also happens to be National Arts and Humanities Month, and ArtsPartners of Central Illinois has been hard at work gearing up for a month-long campaign entitled “All About the Arts!”. “We will be unveiling a series of dynamic, colorful slides of local artists expressing their art form, along with catchy action statements that describe what the arts do for them,” says Suzette Boulais, executive director. “We’ll present one each day throughout October, and WEEK-TV has graciously agreed to air one each day during its morning program.”

ArtsPartners is also working with WTVP on a project that will include at least 10 short programs featuring central Illinois artists at work. A wide range of exhibits, partnerships and other activities—many of them not yet finalized at the time of this writing—are planned for the month. “It’s been an exciting and collaborative process working with so many members of our arts community,” Boulais adds. “We are prepared to show that October 2012 really is ‘All About the Arts!’ in central Illinois.”

A Ready Companion

For a community-wide effort like this to work, a great deal of planning is involved—and that means a lot of meetings with a lot of people. At these meetings, the creative process has proven to be alive and well, as one idea begets another, then another, then another…

That’s how the Vernissage exhibit came about. A French term for “varnishing,” often used to signify a show that precedes a larger opening, the Vernissage is a companion to the CIAO Invitational. The idea stemmed from a brainstorming session among several CIAO members, including the Leunigs and Ron Rae, director of the residency program at the Prairie Center of the Arts (PCA). The idea: to build a secondary show around some of the works that could not be included in the museum show.

“We were thrilled with the response [to the museum show], and excited about the range of work,” says Eileen Leunig. “Seeing the high quality of art, we realized that we needed more than one venue to show all this great work.” With space a primary constraint for the museum show, Rae’s idea to use the PCA’s massive, 6,000-square-foot gallery was a no-brainer.

“There were so many great works of art, and so many artists represented,” explains Rae. “As I looked at the images, I saw another show emerge—one that involved many of the same artists, but with a completely different personality.”

The Vernissage will feature different works by many of the same artists in the museum exhibit, and the choice of venues will ensure a very different show. “Knowing that these pieces were going into this environment, I was able to look at them differently than if they were going into the museum show,” says Rae. “There is more lateral movement—we were able to spread it out a little differently—and we were able to open it up a bit more so we could include everyone who submitted.” The Vernissage opens at the PCA on October 6th and runs through the middle of November.

Inspiring the Creators

The month of October will undoubtedly be an exciting one in central Illinois. It says a lot about this community that so many people have come together and put their hearts and souls into this project. Being a relative newcomer to the area, Rae offers a unique perspective.

“I think the interaction between CIAO and the museum project, the Vernissage and the arts community at large is one of the best I’ve ever seen,” he exclaims. “I’ve lived in a lot of cities that were art-centric, but the involvement here… strikes me as very community-oriented. I feel like it could be a model for a lot of communities: that when you’re involved with the arts community and inclusive of them, things can be more dynamic.

“Sometimes the arts can be exclusive,” he continues. “But the arts organizations here don’t exclude anyone. And with the Vernissage, we wanted to extend that same sort of inclusive attitude. We want everyone to be involved who wants to be involved.”

And as this new cultural campus opens its doors, Jim Richerson sees it as a training ground for the region’s next generation of creators and innovators. “When you think about a middle-school or high-school kid just trying to find their path in the world, to have this experience right here in your backyard… I think it inspires visions,” he muses. “I always love when Scott Altman comes back to town and talks about going to the planetarium [as a kid]… Here we’ve got a Pekin guy—an astronaut—who’s piloted the shuttle a few times. You just never know where those seeds will go!

“Where will our future leadership come from? Where will ideas come from?” he asks. “You need points of inspiration, and I think that’s what we’ve created here.” a&s

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