Upbeat arts in a down economy
From ceramics to hip-hop, dedication and enthusiasm trump economic adversity in Springfield
“I’m glad they’re here, kicking the arts in the butt,” smiles Betsy Dollar, executive director of the Springfield Art Association. She is referring to the organizers and participants of Third Thursday, the upstart local collective whose calling card is a floating, monthly exhibition featuring volunteer artists [see “The Third Thursday artists,” by Tom Irwin, July 28, at illinoistimes.com]. “Also, I think the most exciting thing happening in the visual arts is The Pharmacy group and the way they’re open to working with other groups and supporting the arts across the board in town.”
This kind of cross-pollinating encouragement is typical of the tone among the various arts groups in Springfield as 2011 draws to a close. From the most established, state-funded institutions to fledgling, shoestring operations, the attitude in town is one of generosity and support, seemingly free of any overweening sense of rancor or competition.
“We’re very excited,” says Andrew Woolbright, co-founder of the aforementioned Pharmacy, which had its first juried gallery show in November to overwhelmingly positive response. “We’ve been shown a lot of love very early on, quicker than I’d expect. My hope is that The Pharmacy can be a group that is talented but also humble and encouraging, whether to artists, musicians, writers or filmmakers. We really are trying to build up everyone around us and work toward solutions that move the entire community forward. The big thing for 2012 is going to be more collaboration between different venues.”
All of this mutual support and positivity is admittedly taking place against the backdrop of an extremely difficult economic landscape, personified in poignant fashion by the current plight of the Hoogland Center for the Arts. The downtown complex is arguably the center of artistic activity in the region, acting as home base as well as performance and rehearsal space for numerous art and theater organizations, including the Springfield Theatre Center and the Sangamon Valley Youth Symphony. Faced with a debilitating $2.5 million mortgage, the Hoogland is in the midst of an intensive campaign to raise $1.2 million as part of a deal with a still-undisclosed donor who will then provide the remaining $1.3 million needed to close out the mortgage. While the figures are constantly changing, it was revealed last Thursday that the drive was still a daunting $700,000 away from its target.
None of which seems to have taken the spring out of Hoogland program director (and WICS-TV chief meteorologist) Gus Gordon’s step. “I think this has been an amazingly successful year,” he beams. “We’ve accomplished so many things, not only at the Hoogland Center for the Arts but in Springfield in general. There are so many opportunities for performers, so many opportunities for audience members, so many opportunities for kids to grow and to learn and to participate, that we’re really blessed in this town. We had some really wonderful shows, and it wasn’t all in one category. We had jazz singers from Chicago, we had comedy from the Second City troupe, we built relationships with other organizations, like the Muni and the Springfield Theatre Center and the Little Theater on the Square, so in that respect it has been a very successful year.
“Looking ahead to 2012,” Gordon continues, “we’ve got most of our season planned already, and there are a lot of great things that’ll be happening. One of the first things, that I’m thrilled about, is that I’ll be directing a production of Ain’t Misbehavin’, a musical celebration of the music of Fats Waller. And we’ve got Debbie Ross, who is just a local superstar in the blues community who’ll be in that, and four other great local performers. That’s one of the first events and I think that’s going to set up a really wonderful year for not just theater but orchestral music and symphonic music and the ballet company and for painters and sculptors. We just have a lot of stuff going on in this town.”
Springfield Theatre Center Secretary Jim Leach has also noticed positive trends in his organization’s recent shows at the Hoogland. “I think that we have perceived an increase in attendance, an increase in interest and maybe that’s a sign that economically things are improving. It certainly felt to us like there’s just more response,” he recounts. “It does feel like we turned maybe just a psychological corner, but that people are more willing to come out, more interested in taking part, in buying tickets, in actively participating in the arts, which is just a welcome, good sign and I think it’s beneficial for everyone.” Leach also echoes Gordon’s observations about the variety of successful productions mounted in 2011. “What we’ve seen, and it’s been a pleasant surprise, is a good response to a pretty eclectic mix of shows, whether when we did the original Ken Bradbury From Behind the Curtain early in the year, or whether it’s a show like 1776 or even a youth version of The Pirates of Penzance. It’s great to know that even if you’re doing something that’s a little off the beaten path, people will come out and support it.”
Eric Thibodeaux-Thompson, director of theater at University of Illinois Springfield, is determined to continue providing another kind of artistic experience for Springfield theatergoers with a taste for something different. “In Springfield, we realize that our niche is continuing to be: we do the plays. A lot of people do the musicals around town, and we love musicals, but we’re a little more the place for dramatic literature onstage,” he explains. “Not just the classics like Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, but also the newer work that’s winning Tonys and Pulitzers on Broadway, from playwrights like Neil LaBute and Rebecca Gilman. I love a good production of Annie or Fiddler on the Roof, but we want to complement that with other things that theater can be.”
More specialized performance groups also have reason to look forward to the New Year. Carl Follin of the Land of Lincoln Barbershop Chorus says his organization experienced encouraging numbers of visitors and new members in 2011, while Julie Ratz of the Springfield Ballet Company reports higher attendance at Nutcracker than over the last few years, while alternately lamenting the lack of corporate funding available and praising the financial contributions of local enthusiasts.
Penny Wollan-Kriel, executive director of the Springfield Area Arts Council, another Hoogland tenant, is likewise excited for the future. “I think 2011 has been a better year. And yet it is still a period of struggle. For 2012, hopefully the upturn will continue – it may creep along by inches rather than feet and miles. But, as I’ve always said, the arts and artists will be here long after all of us [organizations] are gone. I think that artists will continue creating, musicians will continue to create and play, performing artists will continue in their vein as well. Of course, with the Hoogland situation, there are those of us who call this home. The space is a really important piece of the whole arts puzzle. I think we all have scaled back and hopefully we can move a little bit in the forward direction. I’m optimistic because the Springfield community, and central Illinois, is so supportive and so philanthropic in many ways.”
“I’m really excited about the future,” concurs multimedia artist David Cain, the Hoogland’s current artist-in-residence. “Being in the context of the Hoogland, you’re reminded of the excitement of young people wanting to tell stories – they want to be a part of something,” he says. “It gets you excited as an older artist. I remember that energy in myself when I was younger. I love to travel but I keep coming back here [to Springfield]. It’s a comfortable place and there are some great people here. I just came back from New Zealand and every small town had artists’ galleries, they were just everywhere, if you just walked down the street it was: coffee shop, grocery, artist gallery, restaurant, then another gallery. Whereas in a community like ours, it’s just a big job to try and keep it alive. Schools want to cut the arts, make it go away and do football instead. I believe that in order for a cultural entity to thrive, it’s important to respect and appreciate your city as a birthplace for art – you have to embrace the original stuff so you’re not just an authentic reproducer. It’s important to have an attitude of ‘We make art here!’ as opposed to ‘Well, we’re putting on some shows.’ Which is great, but there’s a pride that comes with creation, the idea that we can do it here.”
One local arts entrepreneur who has made it his business to “do it here” is Howard Tomas, aka “Torch” of Torch Tuesday, the vibrant showcase for local hip-hop music, held every Tuesday at Bar None [see “Hip-hop in the Heartland,” by Scott Faingold, Sept. 29, at illinoistimes.com]. “Looking ahead to 2012, Torch Tuesday and local hip-hop will continue to raise awareness of social issues, with Toys for Tots and Stop the Violence campaigns.” He pauses and grins. “We want to do good for the community, but at the same time I encourage people to speak their minds. Right now for January 2012 I’m putting together this battle contest called ‘Put Up or Shut Up.’ I’m gonna have the artists put up a certain amount of money, I’m gonna match that amount, and the winner takes the pot. For other prizes, there’s gonna be a trophy and a wrestling belt. There’s the two sides to it. My people aren’t honestly that thrilled when I do stuff like Black History Month, but the battle thing has people really excited, so it’s a little positive and a little negative. I’m also going to be working with WiseGuys productions to follow up on last year’s Raekwon concert and bring in some other national artists, probably in the spring. Right now we’re trying to build local culture here so when that show comes we’ll be more ready. A year later, let’s see how ready Springfield is.”
It can be said that any local arts community is only as strong as its most venerable organizations and Janet Seitz Carlson of the Prairie Art Alliance generally concurs with the prevailing spirit of positivity going into 2012. “We’ve had a significant transition this year. We were struggling very much toward the end of 2010 and the beginning of this year. We survived, with the help of our member artists who volunteered and actually staffed the gallery here for several months, helping out – because staff was cut,” she admits. “But, being in the arts you need to be creative and find ways to increase awareness of your organization so that you get attention, you get needed funding and you get growth. We had a very successful ‘Garden and Studio’ tour this summer which I think helped broaden the perspective of what we do. It was just something a little bit different for us, which was also a fundraiser of sorts.
“We did launch a new giving program, on the wall at the HD Smith Gallery,” she continues. “We’ve got a metal sculpture where donors’ contributions will create artwork, the tree will grow with each donation. The artist adding to the tree will be paid a small stipend for creating those pieces and then, depending on the amount of the donation, there will be give-backs too, in the form of gift certificates, shared sponsorships and solo sponsorships. It’s kind of a win-win thing, everything sort of cycles back.”
Besty Dollar of the Springfield Art Association is also brimming with plans. “We have a lot of big ideas for the new year and a lot of aspirations, so we’re forging ahead. The Art Association has been working closer with the Art Alliance – I think there’s this perception that we hate each other, and we’re trying to really break that down and see how we can share resources. The fact that we’re offering a dual membership between both organizations as Christmas presents is one example of that.
“The economy is a challenge, but we’ve done okay with fundraising this year. I think Springfield really needs better ceramics facilities so that’s one thing we’re shooting for. Our new education coordinator has put together a great new set of classes that starts the second week in January with media that haven’t been offered here in a long time: basket weaving and stained glass, as well as straight painting and drawing. Our real goal,” Dollar confides, “is to get more people through here who, despite the fact that we’ve been here for 100 years, have never wandered through our doors.”
For his part, Fred Jarosz, executive director and chief fundraiser of the merely decade-old Hoogland Center, is maintaining at least a show of high spirits as his deadline looms. “We received some very good news from our auditor, who pointed out that without a mortgage, the Hoogland Center for the Arts is sustainable, and that if it were calculated now, as our budget stands today but without this mortgage, we would be over by 106,000 positive dollars. That’s great news – makes it all the more important that we hit our goal.”
Fred pauses to retrieve a handwritten note from an envelope on his desk. “I would like to read a few lines from a letter that we got this morning,” he says, and begins to read aloud. “‘Dear arts lovers, please accept this donation for your million-dollar campaign to pay off the mortgage. You are a great asset to Springfield and the surrounding area. Keep up the good work. Thank you for providing so much for so many.’
“Now, what else can I say on top of that? It’s been said! As far as what’s coming in the new year, we have a great outline of new productions, new shows that will attract even more people, a bigger variety, and we’re gonna do more music in the coming years – and I do say ‘years’ plurally! Next year could be the greatest year for the Hoogland ever.”
Scott Faingold can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.