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Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 12:01 am

State of the arts

Five innovators give their perspectives on the Springfield arts and music scene

As 2013 draws to a close, the arts in Springfield are in an exciting place. Local visual artists, theatrical performers and musicians have rarely had so many opportunities to gain exposure, with a growing number of active, adventurous venues and curious, enthusiastic audiences becoming the norm rather than the exception. Simultaneously, established and emerging artists in all fields from around the region, the country and even the world are finding their way to Springfield like never before, creating a sense of vibrancy and connectedness for a scene that in the past has sometimes tended toward isolation.

We asked a select few of the most active and innovative members of the arts community to each give their perspective on where the arts in Springfield stand, how we may have gotten here and where things might be headed.

Allison Lacher in her natural habitat, the UIS Visual Arts Gallery.
PHOTO BY SHANNON O’BRIEN, UIS CAMPUS RELATIONS

Allison Lacher:
‘We should broaden the scope... and bring the best work we can here.’

Allison Lacher was an accomplished installation artist when she moved to Springfield from Utah a few years ago to accompany her husband who had been hired as a professor in the business department at UIS. A frustrating period of dormancy followed, but Lacher has since rallied to become an essential conduit for the local fine art scene. Her position as manager of the Visual Arts Gallery at UIS, where she is also an instructor, has provided a link to the local arts establishment and gives her a legitimacy that has been useful in forging connections between Springfield and the wider world of art. In addition to presenting visiting artists at the university gallery, she has been able to facilitate connections between the local grassroots Pharmacy collective and similar groups in other towns. This year she, along with UIS Visual Arts Gallery Director Jeff Robinson, volunteered time to help found and curate the DEMO Project, a sui generis, artist-run gallery located on the campus of the Springfield Art Association. The DEMO Project continually presents work by eminent, contemporary artists from Chicago, New York City and elsewhere.

“There is often a mentality that Springfield should only be showing Springfield artists,” says Lacher. “I am certainly in support of local artists having opportunities but I think it’s incredibly essential for outside artists to be exhibiting here as well.” Living in town and observing the traditional ways the arts have functioned here, she came to the gradual conclusion that reliance on existing venues and attitudes, while often providing an essential foundation, can also lead to irrelevance and stodginess. This resulted in an approach that acknowledges tradition while working to stave off any tendency toward provincialism and airlessness. “I just think we should broaden the scope a little bit and bring the best work we can here, because art and music can be transformative. It can transform a young mind – but if all we are seeing is the same artists again and again, myself included, that limits the potential for that transformation.”

Nearly all of the work Lacher does in the arts community is on a volunteer basis, and much of it is as simple as just picking up the phone, or even sending a Facebook message, to an artist she is interested in working with and forging the necessary connections to set future exhibitions in motion. She also spends her free time traveling to regional art exhibitions in places like Bloomington, Peoria and Decatur, believing strongly in the importance of an Illinois arts scene. A recent conversation with Lyle Salmi, chair of the Millikin University art department, provided some perspective. “He said, ‘Man, Springfield has so much more going on than Decatur,’” Lacher smiles. “That was kind of refreshing to hear.”

Patrick Russell in the seats of the renovated Legacy Theatre. Inset: Patrick Russell as Hedwig, the title role in the Legacy Theatre’s production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE, INSET PHOTO BY JOHN MUCHOW

Patrick Russell:
‘Why can’t Springfield have the things other cities have?’

Patrick Russell is the associate director of the Legacy Theatre and last year made a splash with his explosive performance as the flamboyant, androgynous protagonist in a trailblazing production of the glam-rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The play tells the story of its tortured, titular antihero(ine), rendered neuter by a botched sex-change operation, who uses the freeing avenue of glam and punk music as a means of finding identity and love. The play is poised for a New Year’s Eve performance at the Legacy followed by a two-week return run at the Legacy later in January.

The enthusiastic local response to Hedwig was not what Russell was expecting, and positive word-of-mouth certainly worked in the show’s favor. “There were 30 people in the audience on opening night,” he recounts. “By the last performance we were having to pull out every chair in the building – we were even pulling them out from the boiler room – so everyone could have somewhere to sit. I think we surprised people both in the level of the production – I think it was as professional a production as you were going to see in this tiny space – and in the show’s theme.”

Springfield audiences are more likely than ever to embrace nontraditional, even risqué, theatrical content. The ADHD company’s rendition of The Rocky Horror Show is a reliable sellout whenever it plays the Hoogland, and drag shows of various stripes have been a steady draw at the Legacy, but the popularity of Hedwig seemed to bring this trend to new levels. Russell attributes this to a sea change in the cultural conversation both in Illinois and nationwide, pointing to the recent passage of the Illinois Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act, allowing same-sex couples to legally wed in Illinois as a clear indicator. In a culture where same-sex marriage has become acceptable, the story of Hedwig’s struggle and redemption manages to be both timely and edgy.

Beyond the content of the actual shows, Russell has noticed of late more pride and self-reliance within the local creative community. “There’s more of a ‘Why not us?’ attitude,” he says. “Why can’t Springfield have the things other cities have? Why can’t we do it here? Why do we have to drive an hour and a half, three hours away? We have amazing artists, amazing performers and amazing musicians in this town. We can do it, and we can support it.”

Aaron “Uncanny” Phillips, one of the leading performers and promoters of 217 hip-hop.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE
Aaron Phillips:
‘This was a banner year. We did a lot of stuff.’

Local hip-hop has taken more of a lead role in town lately and nobody works harder to make this happen than Aaron Phillips, a local promoter, blogger and artist who MCs under the name “Uncanny.” Until recently, Phillips was the host of Torch Tuesday at Bar None, which remains the preeminent outlet for area hip-hop. But lately he has become too busy to make the show every week, although he does continue to promote and book music there. Recent endeavors have included hosting nationally known rapper Chingy’s show at Catch 22 as well as putting together shows at Frankie’s 49er and Four Seasons Sports Complex. “So many venues have opened their doors, so many people are trying to be involved just as fans and as creators of music – it’s going nuts,” he says. Recent Torch Tuesday concerts have included talent from throughout the region, with well-received performances from Decatur and Champaign artists as well as appearances by locals such as Scooby Da Lyricist and Pytch Wyte.

Phillips is aware that hip-hop music and culture still has something of an image problem, with many club owners and members of the public continuing to associate the music with violence and thuggish behavior. “The music doesn’t incite the problem, it’s just the people,” Phillips observes. “Frankly hip-hop is for a demographic of people who largely aren’t affluent – it’s for poor people. So you’ve potentially got people who aren’t spending money at the bar, who are drinking out in the car and causing a little bit of trouble – a venue doesn’t want to deal with that. But we’re doing everything we can to try and change that perception.” As in the past, Torch Tuesday will continue to perform charitable work such as holiday clothing and food drives in order to give back to the community.

As for the overall music scene in town, the one thing Phillips sees missing is a platform encompassing all local music. “There is no magazine or paper or website that covers the whole thing regardless of genre,” he says. “This year was a banner year, we did a lot of stuff. Local artists making a ton of moves and people from other places are actually looking for us now.”

Singer-songwriter and Illinois Times music journalist Tom Irwin.
PHOTO BY STEIN DESIGN

Tom Irwin:
‘Young musicians want to get something going locally and keep it going.’

In his position as a veteran local singer-songwriter as well as IT’s venerable music columnist, Tom Irwin is well-placed to observe changes as they happen in local music, and lately they are very positive indeed. Between WUIS’s Route 66 concert series, which continues to bring high-quality roots music to the Hoogland Center, and an increase in classic rock and international music onstage at the Sangamon Auditorium, Springfield has been experiencing a greater number of national and international touring acts in recent years. Two newer venues have only increased this trend, bringing in more “big” acts while increasing stage opportunities for locals, allowing the music scene some of the same cross-pollination between homegrown and outside acts touted by Allison Lacher in the world of visual arts.

“Boondocks and Donnie’s Homespun have both only been open for about a year and it’s amazing how they’ve changed things,” Irwin says. “Where did we go before they were here?” Indeed, recent shows by touring acts like Los Lobos, Ezra Furman, The Wailers and many others have put Donnie’s on the map as a place for reggae, bluegrass and Grateful Dead-style “jam band” music, while pop country acts from Nashville have been showing up at Boondocks with increasing frequency. “By gosh, they have the same person playing out there that’s playin’ on the radio,” Irwin exclaims dryly.

As for local music, “the kids are on the move,” Irwin says. “In my generation, everybody wanted to get big and get out – you were either gonna move out of town and get on a record label or you were gonna move back here and be embarrassed and just play in a cover band somewhere. That isn’t so much the case for young musicians these days. They want to get something going locally and keep it going.”

Brian Galecki and Kevin Bradford of the Black Sheep Cafe.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

Black Sheep:
A stopover for touring bands and an outlet for locals

Punk and indie rock music, both on the regional and national levels, are also on the upswing in town, largely thanks to the continuing activities of all-ages venue Black Sheep Café, which in the past few years has made the once routinely bypassed Springfield into a regular stopover for rough-edged independent touring bands, as well as a reliable outlet for locals. Ninety percent of Black Sheep shows are for touring bands, providing a place to do shows between St. Louis and Chicago dates. “Bands sometimes need a place to play on a weekday night and it’s not always easy to find that,” says Brian Galecki, who helps to book shows and run sound at Black Sheep. “A lot of great Springfield bands have been popping up in the past year, year and a half,” he enthuses. “It’s really awesome to see some of these new bands putting out vinyl. There have also been a lot of young kids coming out too – a lot of high school kids in the audience and a lot of high school bands and that’s helped the scene overall. There have been a lot of full-house shows in general over the past year.”

The venue, which has been owned and operated by Kevin Bradford for the past eight years and is located near popular skateboard shop Skank Skates near the corner of 11th and South Grand, is already something of a youth culture center and is poised to take another large step in that direction with the announcement of Dumb Records, a record store which Black Sheep will be opening next door in early 2014 in partnership with Champaign’s Error Records. Galecki envisions the store as a place to highlight local releases. “I’m sure we’ll have a huge wall just for Springfield bands,” he says. The Black Sheep has also begun hosting music festivals over the summer. Last year Black Sheep Fest featured about 20 local bands and was well attended, while the debut of the even more ambitious Dumb Fest presented 25 bands from as far away as New York and Seattle.

“In a way, it’s like bringing the cultural world I didn’t have here as a transplant and cultivating it,” Allison Lacher says, describing her motivation for bringing renowned visual artists from other communities to Springfield. It seems that a similar desire may be infecting all areas of the arts in town, perhaps setting the scene for local and traveling acts to feed on each other symbiotically, creating a hybrid vigor and vitality in the Springfield arts and music scene that has barely been hinted at before.

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com.

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