Art Works Blog

Postcard from Peoria

Congressman Schock and Rocco with students at the Peoria Ballet. Photo by Jamie Bennett

Last week, I was back in Peoria, Illinois, where I made my very first Art Works tour stop back in 2009. It was an intense trip---we basically only had one full day---but it was also a reunion. I was reunited with a couple of my best friends, Kathy Chitwood of Eastlight Theatre and Suzette Boulais of ArtsPartners, and was able to continue developing my friendship with Congressman Aaron Schock from Peoria. He really gets it about the arts. He’s tied into Peoria’s arts community, and he has a real awareness of the contribution the arts have made to the economy of his city.

We started our very full day with a meeting at the prospective Riverfront Museum, which is currently under construction. We were given a tour of the site by Jim Richerson, president of the Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences. Congressman Schock joined us, as did Dave Ransburg, chairman of the Riverfront Museum’s board of directors. Dave is very dedicated to his community and very in tune to the arts, and the role the arts can play. He’s a great guy. We all put on hard hats, we went underneath the high-tech auditorium they’re building, and we walked around in the parking lot underneath. We really got a feel for how the museum is coming together. It’s an extraordinary project, and it’s really a great example of what can happen when you have total partnership and collaboration across a community. The governmental agencies, the private sector, the unions---which voted for support of a bond issue to finance part of the museum---the arts community, the patrons…they’ve all come together to make this happen. It’s very exciting to see it go up.

It’s also a great example of “Art Works.” You see construction workers all around. People are saying there are no jobs in construction now; well, there are jobs in Peoria at the new Riverfront Museum. It’s also going to be an economic driver of the region when it’s built because it’s going to be an attraction.

After the museum, we had lunch at---where else?---Steak ‘n Shake. Congressman Schock arranged for us to meet some Bradley grad students in the arts. So between the conversation, my key lime milkshake, and the best chili in the world, it was a fantastic lunch. It also had the best view of any Steak ‘n Shake in America, with plate-glass windows that overlooked the river. It was fantastic. I think I’m going to go back to Peoria just to repeat that meal.

From there, we went to a rehearsal at the Peoria Ballet. This was really thrilling because not only did we see the girls rehearse, but afterwards they talked about what ballet means to them and what their training means to them. To see the passion in their eyes and to see the feeling they had for what they do, and the extent that this gives them an identity and a sense of self---it was really thrilling to see. This is of course a major theme at the NEA: that the arts and arts education can help create people’s sense of self-worth and their identity in the world. In a way that was the high point, seeing the enthusiasm these ballet trainees had for their work. They’re there for one reason, which is that they love what they’re doing. It was fantastic.

We went to the Spotted Cow Ice Cream Parlor next, which had some of the best ice-cream I’ve had. There we met with Dr. James McGee, who’s the Peoria Symphony board chair, George Stelluto, the symphony’s music director, and Judy Furniss, executive director of Peoria Symphony. Dave Ransburg was of course there as well, as well as Congressman Schock. Peoria Symphony is one of the oldest in the country, and they’ve had great continuity. There are a lot of well-entrenched, well-established arts organizations in Peoria that seem to be surviving the economic downturn.

At night, we had an amazing evening. We went out to a wildlife preserve on the outskirts of Peoria, called the Central Illinois Wildlife Prairie Park. You walk out onto a balcony and you literally see buffalo roaming around, and you see wolves and deer. It’s big---it’s a couple of thousand acres. They’ve had economic issues, and they’re trying to figure out how to keep going. Again, there’s talk of a public-private partnership, along with possible federal involvement with that.

What was particularly great about that evening is our old friends Kathy Chitwood and Suzette Boulais put together a set of performances by the local performing arts organizations. You really got to see a cross-section of Peoria arts in this incredibly romantic setting. Congressman Shock and I made remarks. I think everybody was a little taken aback by the turnout for the event. The organizers put out the invitations for this on Thursday; the event was on a Monday evening. They thought maybe we’d get 40 or 50 people, and around 300 people who showed up. As a recovering producer, the first thing you like to see is good box office. To see the room packed there with people who are interested enough in the arts to come out for an occasion like this was fantastic. It was just a great evening and a great way to end the day.

People in Peoria---the artists, the arts supporters, the participants---are very passionate, and very enthusiastic, and they seem to be undaunted by the recession. They’re carrying on. When I was there the first time, I said I would be back, and in fact I came back. And I’ll be back again.

Add new comment