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Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016 12:01 am

Thinking outside the frame

Visual artists paint a more lively Springfield arts scene


On Monday, Feb. 8, Illinois Times invited a small group of leaders in the Springfield visual art community to a luncheon at the Inn at 835 for the purpose of discussing the current state of presenting, creating and promoting visual art in the area. Springfield has long boasted a varied and vibrant selection of creative artists and arts organizations, with venues ranging from century-old institutions to energetic upstart collectives to free-for-all “pop up” showcases. Add in educational gallery spaces along with the efforts of various specialized clubs and societies and hardly a week goes by without some sort of art exhibition on display. And yet there is a clear sense of frustration among those involved in Springfield art, particularly regarding missed opportunities to engage meaningfully with a larger segment of the public.

Our panelists included Betsy Dollar, executive director of the Springfield Art Association; Clare Frachey, art director at Café Brio and Black Sheep Café; Allison Lacher, gallery manager at UIS Visual Arts Gallery and co-director of DEMO Project; Ruthann Mazrim, former co-president of Prairie Art Alliance, now board member of SAA; Mike Miller, chair of art, music and theater at University of Illinois Springfield; Sue Scaife, president of the Illinois Prairie Pastel Society; Janet Sgro, president of The Pharmacy Gallery and Art Space; and Jeff Williams, independent curator and Pharmacy member. Scott Faingold (IT staff writer and co-host of weekly arts roundup “The Scene” on NPR Illinois) moderated the discussion.

The participating panelists represent only a fraction of those involved with the visual arts in Springfield but all are passionate creators and promoters, working tirelessly to present exhibitions of local, regional and national art ranging from highly traditional to more innovative and challenging work. They are also united in an idealistic desire to see the Springfield art community grow and to find new and creative ways of interacting with the city they call home.

IT: What does it mean to create and present art in Springfield, Illinois?
Janet Sgro (The Pharmacy): I think it’s important to bring beauty to this community. By bringing great exhibits and art here and being creative it brings people happiness.

Mike Miller (UIS): I would add that it’s important to bring critical thinking and a notion of contemporary art to this community. That is what we try to do at UIS in both our gallery and in our curriculum. We are interested in bringing regional and national artists to UIS for our students and for the community. Cultural critique is a big part of what we are about.

Allison Lacher (UIS Visual Arts Gallery, DEMO Project): A recent visitor to the UIS gallery told us Springfield is beginning to gradually cultivate a good reputation in Chicago and elsewhere for what’s happening in our visual arts community. I see that as something that is starting to take shape.

Miller: There are some people in Chicago, relevant artists, who are aware that it might be cool to have a show in Springfield – they realize that we’re going to take care of them down here and honor their ideas and that there’s a community here that will pay attention and show up and be interested in what they do.

Betsy Dollar (Springfield Art Association): At the Art Association we recognize the established organizations that are producing very traditional work like the Watercolor Society and the Pastel Society. We also work with DEMO Project [a small house located on the grounds of the SAA which, while awaiting eventual demolition, has been temporarily converted into an alternative gallery space] to bring in contemporary artists, and some of those have even funneled into our larger gallery. I think the key to growing the arts here is education of the public – we need to continually present as wide a variety of work as we can and then help the public to engage with it and accept it. When we show local artists, people will turn up – same with something based on local history like the “Shifting Sands” architecture show that we just had, which had higher attendance than any other exhibition at the SAA in the past five years. The frustrating thing is that we will show other really great regional or national artists and – other than people whose arms we twist – a lot of people don’t show up just because they don’t know that person. I think we still have a lot of work to do in the community to educate everyone to the value of exploring the visual arts. Nobody said you have to like it all but if you keep an open mind and just show up, you’re going to discover all kinds of interesting things.

Miller: A person doesn’t have to love every exhibition we have – some can be quite strident in their messages and you might totally disagree. But you can still come and connect with members of the art community who are processing that same exhibition alongside you. The most important thing is to build this group of people who are going to think about art together in this town and be colleagues in the assessment of it. Maybe we all don’t like this piece, maybe we all love that one – it’s more about intellectually and emotionally engaging in art together as a community. The point is not to woo people with beauty or to shock them, the point is to show work that is relevant to their lives, to say things about being alive in 2016.

Ruthann Mazrim (formerly of Prairie Art Alliance, currently on the board of the Springfield Art Association): What we’ve seen at the PAA gallery at the Hoogland is that a lot of people are intimidated by art, and especially an art gallery. There are so many performing arts shows held [at HCFTA] and people will have 10 minutes before the show and then during intermission, so they’ll gradually come in to the gallery. We have a wide variety of work and some of it is very, very accessible, but trying to get these people just to come in for the first time is difficult.

Sue Scaife (Illinois Prairie Pastel Society): My group doesn’t have a gallery but that hasn’t been a problem. We are always looking for venues and we’ve found that the community has been very welcoming. But we have to reach out to them. No one ever says, ‘Hey, we’ve got an opportunity here, we’re looking for artists to hang work.’ But along with the Art Alliance we also do several shows a year at the Chatham library, we have done shows at the [SIU] medical school library, and that’s been well-received. We do small shows at the Presbyterian home – we don’t get any sales but we certainly make the residents there happy. We will hang probably anywhere somebody asks us to.

IT: What kind of responses does The Pharmacy get to its presentations?

Sgro: We do four big group shows a year and all the members are involved in promoting them and I think that helps with our attendance. We get at least several hundred visitors per night during our openings.

IT: [to Frachey] Explain what you do for First Fridays.

Clare Frachey: At the First Friday art shows we transform Café Brio into a half-restaurant, half-art exhibit and we have different artists each month. Some of these people haven’t ever shown their work in public. These shows are a good way for people to be involved. I’ve never turned anyone away – which can be good and bad. But the point is not just the aesthetics, it’s the act of seeing.

Dollar: It’s the opportunity.

Scaife: And it’s the kind of opportunity emerging artists and local artists are always looking for.

Frachey: It’s a lot more low-key than a formal gallery so that the intimidation factor is not as prevalent – it’s just come in, come out, maybe get a drink.

Jeff Williams at work in The Pharmacy.


IT: What are some things you’d all like to see happen? Any ambitions or plans or dreams of what you’d like to see in a Springfield art scene?

Miller: I’m saddened by the loss of the Illinois State Museum. They were such a great partner. Maybe a year or so ago I would’ve said Springfield is as strong as it’s ever been in terms of the presentation of art and the levels of engagement with art. But when we lost the ISM we lost one of our arms. They not only had full-time resources and curators who could help us put on collaborative shows, they had connections throughout not only the city but the state, who would help us promote things like that. But we have to move forward without them at this point and that’s sad because they were an important player.

Scaife: The Illinois Artisans Program [previously administered by the ISM system to promote and market crafts by local artisans through shops at the four now-closed museum locations] was a casualty as well and that was a huge loss to all the people who were members of that, who relied upon the ability to show and be part of that, as well as the loss of the other resources.

Dollar: The Art Association’s gallery rarely makes any sales – there doesn’t seem to be a real art-buying culture in Springfield. I’ve been told by people, ‘If I’m really gonna buy art, I’ll go to Chicago or LA or New York or someplace that has real artists.’ It is a point of frustration because we work pretty hard to show artists both locally and regionally and there really are high-quality things to buy here. I think the people who are in the position to be buying art need to be encouraged to buy local – just like in everything else.

Scaife: Or they go to Hobby Lobby and spend just as much there as they would at a gallery.

Dollar: They buy a poster and then spend $200 having it framed instead of buying something original. Again, education of the public could encourage people just to look and determine what they like and then reassure them that purchasing what they like is not a bad thing. The chance of actually buying something that will be worth millions which you’ll leave to your grandchildren is pretty minimal.

Miller: Even if they do go to Chicago or New York. [laughter]

Scaife: Art is very reasonably priced here. I had to take my art elsewhere to make a living at it.

Sgro: It seems people go to galleries for an experience. At DEMO a lot of times you’re creating these installations and they’re really not for sale, it’s an experience.

Lacher: DEMO Project is a very special venue. We really didn’t even understand the wonderful gift the Art Association was giving us until it was really up and running and we were starting to get submissions. It was very surprising to see the kind of response we were getting to our calls. People are willing to come here from all over the country to exhibit and we want to give them an audience. I see DEMO as a space that serves our community artists. As artists practicing in Springfield, we need to see work from elsewhere to influence our work. And the community needs to see this kind of work in order to grow and to exert critical thinking when looking at art.

Another thing I think could be helpful to our community of visual artists, and would help build a true market here, is critical media coverage on art. This arts community has been growing for a decade now. Consistent writing about exhibitions that would contextualize the work, explain the work, exert an opinion on it, good or bad – that would be the thing that begins to educate the community outside of the people who are already supporting us. I think the visual arts community has earned that kind of coverage.

Miller: With a more sophisticated, nuanced, diverse arts community, it’s not always the best thing for writers and critics to just do the promotion piece for the arts. Do a critical piece. Say, ‘This is good but it lacks in this area.’ Or ‘this is better than this other thing that happened over here.’ Just in order to help understand the difference between something that is excellent and something that’s just pretty good.

Scaife: You’re gonna get letters to the editor…

Miller: Excellent! Because that’s dialog and discussion!

Dollar: Drama is good!

Lacher: There’s a big difference between offering the context of a critical piece and just saying ‘this is happening.’ I think to contextualize something can spark interest. Maybe that seems lofty but if you look at the statistics about what a viable arts community can do for an economy in a city the size of Springfield, it’s pretty impactful. It’s worth paving the way. Because here’s the thing about an art exhibition – it doesn’t live on after being de-installed unless it is immortalized by an article, by a catalog – there are a lot of different ways. An art exhibition is at once an ephemeral thing; it’s not meant to last forever. But there should be a record of it, some documentation, a life after that conclusion.

Jeff Williams (The Pharmacy, NIL8): The “Art of the Other Wheel” group show that I put together this past September had the theme of wheels other than automobile wheels. I reached out to people from the community and a few other states. It was just a one-time thing but I still have people who think it’s an annual event. They contact me about being in the next one even though there isn’t going to be a next one. They’re excited about it.

It made me start thinking about the little group critiques we do of each other’s work at The Pharmacy. I thought we could do the same thing but with “community critiques” where artists can bring work to The Pharmacy and get feedback from the other artists in attendance. A lot of people have been interested. At first they think there’s a catch. They’re like, ‘How much is it?’ and I’m like, ‘It’s all free, just bring a couple of pieces of art.’ It’s at The Pharmacy but it’s not strictly for The Pharmacy, it’s for the open community. We’re not making any money off of it, it’s not doing anything except letting people come and show their stuff.

Mazrim: I think with the merger of the Springfield Art Association and Prairie Art Alliance [see “Springfield Art Association and Prairie Art Alliance merge” in IT, Dec. 23, 2015] it’s a much tighter group in town, which is a great thing – two of the largest, oldest organizations are now one.

Miller: I do think it’s important to accept that we’re not all doing the same things. From my own experience, UIS is seen as only doing this kind of conceptual stuff or something and people think that means we don’t honor any other kind of approach. That’s not true. To me, we’re one of the few venues in town that can get away with showing challenging work like that on a consistent basis because we’re not trying to sell it and we’re not promoting just from local artists and we need to give that input to our students and to our community. That doesn’t make us better or worse than anybody else. I think it’s important to accept that art is not monolithic – art can be grass roots, national, regional or local. And if we want to be a rich and diverse community serving this city, all of it is important.

Lacher: I’ve spent a long time considering public art programming [exhibits and projects intended for public spaces, generally presented outdoors, such as murals, and often funded by public money]. Public art can be an incredibly valuable tool for any community and on a lot of different fronts, too – it’s not just about the visual arts community. How can we capitalize on sites that are available, funding that’s available?

Scaife: We need to make sure that we continue to promote local artists as they reach out and not let them get too far away, keep them as part of our base. My organization [Illinois Prairie Pastel Society] is growing artists and getting them involved and providing education and so forth, which is a little bit different than having a gallery or an education facility or a shop. I’m dealing with individuals each day and to help them promote their own work and to improve their skills; I like the idea of the collaboration amongst the people at the table and the groups here and the different dynamics that each person brings. It will help local artists.

Frachey: There’s a place for everyone in town who wants to have their work seen.

Williams: The Pharmacy has talked about having pop-up shows [one-time exhibits in nontraditional spaces like restaurants or retail spaces]. We also like to give artists who are not already connected to some group a chance to use part of our space to show their stuff.

A wall at the H. D. Smith Gallery inside the Hoogland Center for the Arts. In the foreground is "Daddy's Girl" by Teri Zucksworth.


IT: Part of having art in town being self-sustaining and taken seriously and critically looked at would all be part of keeping artists here as opposed to leaving for so-called greener pastures. Are there things beyond what we’ve talked about to try to keep individual artists here?

Dollar: The city is putting together a task force to look at initiatives to bring more artists here – and the Enos Park Neighborhood Association is working with that, primarily because the SAA is right there with the studios and available space to work. The plan is to give these artists houses if they have some skills to do the renovation work themselves, with the idea that Springfield is appealing as a cheap place to live, plus you have easy access to St. Louis, Indianapolis, Chicago. The hope is to create more of an arts district in Enos Park and attract people who are graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago or Washington University and bring them here and create some more critical mass. The thing that concerns me about that is being able to provide enough of an art market to make it worthwhile for them to live here.

Lacher: I don’t think the role that visual artists can play in the community can be underestimated. It can be a very powerful boon.

Dollar: The statistics are amazing when it comes to moving artists into floundering neighborhoods and turning the neighborhoods around. That’s the premise on which Artspace was built and they now have communities all over the country. [Artspace is a national network of more than 35 affordable arts facilities in 15 states – more info at artspace.org.]

Lacher: We don’t have to look far for great examples of centralized artist studios. I only have to look to Peoria or Bloomington-Normal. Something Springfield lacks is affordable studio space that is centralized. All of us in one warehouse. To rent a studio in Peoria is only $150 a month and you should see these studios, they’re fantastic. Enos Park is, I think, the neighborhood that our artists should be looking at very carefully. If we can curate and program exhibitions that are a mix of our community artists with artists who live outside of the city, creating a market where people are buying and supporting art – that would be ideal.

Contact Scott Faingold at sfaingold@illinoistimes.com


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