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Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2003 02:20 pm

The view from inside

art718

As anyone who enjoys an occasional night out listening to music or watching a good performance can attest to, Springfield doesn't suffer from a lack of cultural offerings.

Indeed, the number of organizations promoting the arts here is surprisingly large, given the capital city's size.

We have independent theater groups, visual arts groups, musical groups, and inspired promoters. We have a symphony, an opera, a ballet company -- and bluegrass bands, bagpipe musicians, and a cowboy yodeler. World-class exhibits open at our museums; Broadway sends its touring companies to the capital city.

With so much talent here, choosing individuals to comment on the state of the arts in Springfield is daunting.

But choose we did.

Illinois Times recently spoke with four Springfieldians active in the arts -- Dave Leonatti, producer of WUIS's "Nightsounds," Erika Fitzgerald, interim director of the Springfield Art Association, Bobbie Pierro, director of Prairie Arts Alliance, and Penny Wohlen-Kriel, program director of the Springfield Area Arts Council.

Here are their thoughts:

Penny Wohlen-Kriel

Wohlen-Kriel is a well-known name in the Springfield arts community. She served with the Springfield Area Arts Council for several years and then became executive director of the Springfield Art Association. In 2001, she returned to the Arts Council as program director.

We are a local arts agency; we receive grants and then re-grant to arts organizations, not-for-profit arts programs, and individuals in any area of the arts. We are an umbrella of all of the arts -- theater, dance, music, visual, etc. Our grants are program-specific. We help the advancement of individuals, for example, through our Rosie Richmond grants.

The Illinois Arts Council gives us a general operating grant and then provides grants for different items. . . . At one time the city gave around $90,000 to help support the arts. That has been dramatically cut. A greater piece of the money we get from the city is needed for general operating because of a reduction from the Illinois Arts Council, which is affected every time the National Endowment for the Arts gets hit. The money reduction trickles down to us.

We have more groups operating on a shoestring. Where there might have been, let's say, 20 arts organizations ten years ago vying with, say, ten social service organizations, we could now say we maybe have 30 arts organizations and 60 social service ones. There is far more competition for the philanthropic money than there was ten or 15 years ago. Maybe people are giving more readily to the social issues, the homeless, etc. But the arts are the soul; when the arts go, we have lost enormous resources of human creativity!

[Springfield arts organizations] need to be more collaborative in what we do. There has been a suggestion to have a United Arts, like a one-umbrella organization similar to a United Way. I don't know if Springfield wants that because there are solid bases in various groups. People put their heart and soul into one group, based on where their children's interests lie.

We have enough offerings, although I would like to see more dance. But we pack it all into Friday, Saturday, Sunday. We will need to pull out things for Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday night performances to offer a tourist who is not just here on a weekend. That would ease up the overabundance when people say, "I couldn't choose which [art offering] to go to." The Center for the Arts is going to allow for more. The arts organizations need to be willing to put things out there on a weekday night.

The arts also have to be in the schools with full support, from the time the kids enter kindergarten. Without that, you don't have an audience or appreciation or artists. The Springfield Area Arts Council offers matching grants to bring professional artists into schools. A kid can say, "That's what I want to do" when seeing a performance. Or maybe a student would see the Symphony and get focused on an instrument. We often lose the younger crowd. Unless they stay hooked during the college years when time becomes an issue and they start jobs, it is harder to get them back.

Upcoming from the Springfield Area Arts Council: Springfield was selected as the only city in the state to be included in the Midwest World Fest, hosting musical ensembles with a one week residency in schools plus community concerts. Coming in April is Gullah Kinfolk, a vocal group from the Sea Islands.

Dave Leonatti

Leonatti is a partner in Melotte, Morse, Leonatti Architects. A flight of stairs next to Del's Popcorn on Sixth Street takes you to his office. Leonatti has operated the WUIS (FM 91.9) radio show "Nightsounds" for several years. As an outshoot of the program, he's brought nationally known folk artists to Springfield.

With the radio show I realized that with a few contacts and some detective work I could bring quality entertainment to Springfield. That led to such artists as Rory Block, an acoustic blues artist, Erica Luckett, a flamenco guitarist, and Ruth Gerson, an acoustic guitarist.

The radio show receives partial funding through WUIS, but the independent performances operate from ticket sales. There is competition for funding due to less coming from the federal and state sources. And money that used to be budgeted from the mayor's office that supported the Arts Council has dropped off.

Everybody laments Springfield is boring; for me, it's just the opposite. I have a hard time picking and choosing from all the events going on.

[Though] we have a lot of good offerings, we need some way to get everyone to realize that the arts' life is tied to Lincoln and Springfield tourism. The art groups should be working with the city tourism department to market the arts. [Springfield needs] a global quest to develop the arts, a way to cultivate the next generation of audiences. Tourism is so set on Lincoln but what are the ancillary supports? Good dining, good music, etc. All this takes a coordinated effort.

Upcoming on Nightsounds: Eric Bibb (Jan. 24), blues artist Otis Taylor (February), folk guitarist John Renbourn (April).

Bobbie Pierro

Pierro answered an ad for a part-time position with the Prairie Art Alliance six years ago. She is now its full-time director.

[Prairie Arts Alliance] started as the Women's Art Alliance in 1975 after a couple groups, Sojourn House and the Rape Information Council needed mentors. The group met in homes and planned one-two shows a year. In 1985, the name was changed to the Prairie Art Alliance and includes men also. Our mission is to foster community awareness and participation in visual arts. We only represent and exhibit central Illinois artists. We're funded through memberships and grants from the Illinois Arts Council. . . .

With the Center for the Arts there will be drastic changes. The Prairie Art Alliance publishes the Springfield Arts Guide of visual and performing arts. People have had to hunt and peck to find the many offerings. Illinois Times does a superb job each week with its listings. I would like to see . . . more listings [in general]. Hopefully, the Center's new Web site, which will have links to other arts groups, will play a big part.

Springfield needs to get behind the Center for the Arts. This is the biggest thing to hit Springfield. In 2000, Mayor [Karen] Hasara's 20/20 report came out, looking at 20 years into the future. Everyone who testified, separately, said we needed a Center. So here we are, in only four years, it has been accomplished. Remarkable! But the $5 million from the state will not cover furniture, and the project is going over budget due to renovation problems.

Springfield people need to buy more Springfield art. Many have the mindset that you have to go out of town or save money for vendors at the Art Fair to find good art. The Prairie Art Alliance showcases Springfield artists -- we have many talented artists, but they don't get the respect.

Upcoming from Prairie Art Alliance: On Jan. 9, the opening of the 2200-square-foot art gallery in the Center for the Arts. Featured artists are Roland and Hazen Folse with their variety of art from bonsai trees to the ceramic claypots made to hold them, to pastel paintings.

Erika Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald has only been in Springfield for three years, coming to the Springfield Art Association from the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio in Oak Park, Ill., with a specialty in textiles. She was recently named the interim director of the Art Association.

[Our] mission statement is to promote the visual arts, to educate people about art through art. This is the same mission as the women who started the Art Association around 1913. Our exhibits are important in bringing art to the community with traveling shows, local artists, classes, and outreach to schools.

We are a private not-for-profit [organization], so we get our money through memberships, fundraising, grants from some state and federal organizations . . . . I am new to Springfield, but I have realized that in the past bigger corporations in Springfield, as an example Franklin Life, would underwrite gallery exhibits; now the corporations are not doing that.

People come into our exhibits and ask if there are any more galleries. I send them to the Prairie House, the Illinois State Museum, the [Prairie] Art Alliance. I also see there are a lot of performances going on. Coming from Oak Park, I noticed people would drive to Chicago and St. Louis to attend shows, but I don't see people from the outlying communities around Springfield really coming here for their arts.

[We need] collaboration between the visual arts organizations. There are lots of opportunities for all the visual arts organizations to coordinate and promote everybody. I have been confused about the public here in town. The Art Association sponsored the first Smithsonian show of Constance Stuart Larabie's photos and the turnout was very low. I go to events and see the same crowd. What will get others interested? Where are the younger people -- ones my age?

Upcoming from the Art Association: "Apron Strings," a look at handmade, vintage, antique aprons, showcasing women's changing roles of the last 100 years; complete with antique sewing machines and try-on aprons. Opens Feb. 6.

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