Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016 12:13 am
Springfield’s art scene is riding high
The visual arts in Springfield blossomed throughout 2016, with established institutions and grassroots groups alike reporting a great range of positive motion in spite of potentially mitigating factors such as the ongoing state budget impasse. In an especially exciting development, the City of Springfield has stepped in with funding and support for an innovative residency program centered in the Enos Park neighborhood with the aim of expanding the presence of the arts in town. Spirits seem high throughout the artistic community heading into the new year.
The merger of the venerable Springfield Art Association with the struggling Prairie Art Alliance a year ago has reportedly paid dividends. “We’ve really come together,” said Springfield Art Association executive director Betsy Dollar. The H.D. Smith Gallery at the downtown Hoogland Center for the Arts – formerly Prairie Art Alliance headquarters – has been rebranded as the SAA Collective Gallery. “It’s fun to have a second location,” Dollar said of adding the Hoogland gallery to the association’s longtime home on North Fourth Street. “I think of it as being our retail gallery space versus the more traditional exhibition space over here at the main campus. Now when people come in and are looking to buy a piece of pottery we have just the place to send them.” Dollar describes the transition as relatively smooth. “A lot of the [former PAA] artists have stuck with us and I think they’re happy with the amount of marketing and other things we’ve been trying to do in order to keep them in the forefront.”
“You dive into these things with a really positive attitude but no one knows how it’s going to come out on the other side,” said SAA Collective (and former Prairie Art Alliance) gallery director Corrin McWhirter regarding the merger. “The artists have certainly been willing to give it a go, which was a huge plus.” McWhirter reports that the gallery maintained its standard retention rate of member artists along with having some new artists join. They are now in the midst of evaluating a round of new artistic applicants, which she described as “the largest response to a call for potential new artists we have seen in the three years I’ve been directing the gallery.” Another thing she noticed is that the current crop is coming from as far away as Rushville and even Champaign. “We’re going to ultimately end up serving the whole of central Illinois, which is a goal that we’ve had,” she said.
Positive effects of the merger can be felt in the arts community beyond the Springfield Art Association, according to Allison Lacher, who is manager of the University of Illinois Springfield Visual Arts Gallery as well as a managing member of the DEMO Project (more on both of them below). “It just seems like the community is strengthening and people are willing to move past old perceptions,” she said. “Right now the questions seem to be: how can we move forward and how do we become a better and stronger city for the arts? There is some forward movement and it’s in the right direction.”
The first exhibition on the books for the SAA’s North Fourth Street location, set to open Jan. 5, is entitled “Life Outside the Classroom” and will consist of work by Springfield area art teachers, an idea that resonates with Dollar personally. “I’m hoping that a lot of their students make it to the show,” she said. “As a kid, I never had a clue what any of my art teachers were doing – it would have been fun to see their work and their practice.”
The Collective Gallery has a full calendar going into 2017. Their annual photo contest (in partnership with Illinois Times) has been moved from its usual winter date all the way to June. “We’re hoping it is going to get a bigger response in the warmer weather – when it’s cold out, nobody wants to go out and photograph things,” she observed. There are also plans for an exhibition with a theme described as “play in all its forms and all its levels” as well as a partner exhibit with the Hoogland which will include a small-scale theatrical production performed in the gallery. McWhirter also noted that foot traffic into the gallery has increased over the past year, as well as more active interest from those visitors. “We have seen a lot of people from out of town, commenting and being really impressed with the quality of work that’s here. We shipped a piece to Australia this year and we have also been shipping work to Chicago and around the state.”
Meanwhile, DEMO Project – the tiny standalone gallery on the SAA campus specializing in contemporary work by visiting artists – effectively doubled its display space in 2016. “The big DEMO development for 2016 was the renovation of the kitchen as a new gallery space,” said Allison Lacher, “so we launched a second facet of programming and have hosted several shows in there. It’s twice the work,” she laughs, “but it also means there is now that much more contemporary art in our community.”
The name DEMO Project is a reference to the fact that the space’s days are numbered: the Art Association granted temporary use of the venue with the understanding that the small house on the Art Association campus was slated for eventual demolition. “We launched the space in September 2013 so we’ll be celebrating our fourth anniversary this coming year,” said Lacher wistfully. “And it will very likely – barring some incredible circumstance – be the last anniversary we see there. It is going to get demolished and it’s very likely we will only have the space about six months into 2018. So we’re really trying to hit it pretty hard here.” Plans for a post-demo DEMO location are in the early exploratory stages.
A call for new work to be displayed at DEMO in 2017 received a record number of submissions – close to 200, according to Lacher, who characterized the applicants as being “from all over the country, coast to coast, even international.” As for how all these far-flung artists are finding out about the tiny, doomed space in central Illinois, Lacher had some theories. “I know people aren’t hearing about DEMO through national media coverage,” she said wryly, instead attributing the growing reputation of the space to a combination of word-of-mouth and social media. For example, Lacher describes an interaction with a recent visitor, a former Springfield resident who said that while she was working in a gallery in New York she happened to notice DEMO Project listed on an artist’s curriculum vitae, along with MOMA, so the next time she visited her hometown she made a point of paying a visit to DEMO. “There are just these little pops of where DEMO is turning up all over the place,” she said. “There’s something really great about this site, artists tend to have a good time and are happy with the work they’re able to produce to show here and so that energy has just been spreading.”
The UIS Visual Arts Gallery, on the campus of University of Illinois Springfield, where Lacher works her day job as gallery manager (DEMO is a labor of love) has hosted an eclectic array of work this year, including an exhibition by St. Louis artist Lyndon Barrois, Jr., which took as its subject the late iconic musician Prince. “That was really timely in the context of Prince’s passing and it was a different show for us,” Lacher said. Other memorable exhibits this year included Washington, D.C.’s Paul Short who mounted an ambitious combination exhibition, lecture and workshop centering around cultural and economic stigmas associated with loitering. A recent two-person show by central Illinois figurative painters Amanda Greive and Stanley Bly turned out to be a big hit with attendees. “They presented a cohesive exhibition where their work was very much in dialogue with one another while maintaining their individual identities,” Lacher said.
The spring semester is slated to kick off at the gallery with an exhibition from Tyler Lotts, a professor of ceramics at ISU, followed by a March 2 presentation from Diaz-Lewis, a husband and wife collaboration between Alejandro Diaz and Cara Lewis. “Alejandro is a Cuban refugee,” Lacher explains, “and he and Cara have created an ongoing work entitled ‘34,000 Pillows’ in response to a congressional mandate stating that immigration and customs enforcement agents are required to maintain a quota of 34,000 detained immigrants per day in 250 centers around the country.” The couple is trying to make a pillow for every detainee of this mandate and will be bringing a “Pillow Workshop” to the UIS gallery along with other work.
“That’s the beauty of programming here at UIS,” Lacher said. “One month you might have a more traditional exhibition of figurative painting and then follow it up with a very socially conscious and culturally diverse project.”
The independent Pharmacy Gallery and Art Space continued to present innovative, well attended group exhibitions showcasing work by its members in 2016 and shows no sign of stopping.
“It’s been somewhat surprising,” says longtime Pharmacy member Jeff Williams of the group’s five-year track record, which reached a new crescendo a few weeks ago with a fashion-themed exhibit replete with runway show. “Usually we try to do things that are a little bit different. That’s something I like personally and the community also seems to appreciate it.”
“Each show is something totally different and it’s always a surprise,” added Pharmacy president Janet Sgro.
“The way you picture a show at the beginning and then how it turns out is always hugely different,” said Williams, “but as somebody trying to create things, you want to expand your comfort zone and realize you can do certain things and have the community’s support. Although after a while, you do almost feel pressure to make sure it’s not seen as, like, just another Pharmacy show.”
In the coming year, The Pharmacy is planning a show in collaboration with the YMCA, where the Y kids will make art which Pharmacy members will then interpret, with both versions displayed together. In addition to quarterly group exhibits, the venue has been hosting monthly public art critiques this year where anyone in the community is encouraged to bring in their work for feedback. They also plan to start offering drop-in life-drawing classes. “Instead of signing up for six weeks worth of classes or whatever, if someone decides to come in or not for any given session, that’s fine,” said Williams. “We’re hoping people from outside the city might make the drive to Springfield just to check out a casual life-drawing class.”
Unaffiliated and emerging artists throughout the region have had the option this year to participate in First Friday exhibitions, administered by organizer Clare Frachey. “Starting in August 2015 I put on one art show a month at Café Brio,” she said. “I didn’t go into it with any standards or guidelines or expectations in mind, I would just approach people who I knew were artists. Half of the time I didn’t know what they made or the content or the subject matter, just approach them and ask them to be in the show.” Three artists per month had work on display at the restaurant on the first Friday of each month and when the exhibition ended the work would hang on the walls of the restaurant until the following month. Following the recent unceremonious closing of Café Brio, Frachey is currently on the lookout for another space to host First Fridays in 2017.
More recently, Lisa Clemmons Stott, executive director of Downtown Springfield, Inc., approached Frachey about spearheading a pop-up show series as part of DSI’s Holiday Walks. The result has been “Deck the Walls,” featuring work from two or three artists on display and for sale every Wednesday evening in the former Small Business Development Center building (located between the Feed Store and the Korean War Museum) on the Old State Capitol Square between Nov. 30 and Dec. 21.
Frachey believes the size of Springfield allows for unique opportunities to present art. “In my experience, networking is relatively easy to do here,” she said. “I’ve noticed that a lot of artists, organizers and art groups tend to know each other and generally, efforts find support within and across the various factions. Cooperation is not where it could be but I notice more connections happening recently – people are always reaching out to each other.”
Inevitably, the ongoing state budget impasse reverberates in the Springfield art scene, but less so than might be expected. “It is having an impact on sales,” said McWhirter of the SAA Collective Gallery, “but a little bit less of an impact than we saw last year. People seem to be deciding, yeah, this is the way we’re gonna live and just seem to move on.” She has noticed the prices of work sold by the Collective have been rising. “From a bottom line, financial standpoint we certainly feel a little bit better about it than I would have said last year. We were worried.”
“The grant funding came late this year and it was a little less than usual. But it came,” said Lacher. “State budget issues are always a looming force and you never know. At an institution like UIS, when they have to trim the fat, this is one place that could come from. But so far, so good!”
The most exciting development for the art scene in Springfield going into 2017 is the new City Arts artist residency program.
The SAA recently purchased, with financial help of the City of Springfield and some TIF funds, a duplex structure on North Fifth Street immediately south of the association’s campus. The plan is for the house to be occupied by four artists who will apply to live there for a “very nominal” monthly rental feel for a period of either six or 12 months. “We’re really hoping that this will draw artists from other places to come to Springfield,” said Dollar. “Ideally, they would engage with the Art Association and the Enos Park neighborhood as a whole and also work with the city and downtown to generate some new, arts-based activities with the neighborhood.”
The first round of applications is being accepted now at www.enosparkresidency.org, which includes an explanation of the entire program and all of the links needed in order to apply. Each unit will be fully furnished and include two bedrooms along with decent-sized living and dining spaces and a washer and dryer. The plan is for two artists to live as roommates in each unit and share the space and use the studios at the Art Association for their work.
Allison Lacher finds the residency program especially significant, mainly because of the backing of the city. “Sometimes there can be tension between city support and artist initiatives,” she marveled. “This is one that made it – this wasn’t shut down at any point, there was no conflict of vision. A lot of people had to be on the same page for that to happen. That’s very encouraging from where I’m sitting.”
With the Art Association managing the administration of that program and galleries like UIS Visual Arts Gallery and DEMO Project looking to support the project and serve as ambassadors for artists that we bring to Springfield, Lacher sees reason for optimism. “I don’t think it’s shrouded in mystery here. We want to bring artists to Springfield and we hope that they stay,” she said. “We’re hoping to really grow the presence of art and the parameters of what community art can be and the impact it can have.”
Scott Faingold can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galleries – where to go
The Pharmacy Gallery and Art Space is located at 711 S. Fifth St. in Springfield. Visit www.pharmacygallery.com for further information.
Springfield Art Association is located at 700 N. Fourth St. in Springfield. Visit www.springfieldart.org for further information.
SAA Collective is located in the Hoogland Center for the Arts at 420 S. Sixth St. in Springfield. Visit www.springfieldart.org for further information.
DEMO Project is located at 720 N. Fourth St. in Springfield. Visit www.demoprojectspace.com for further information.
University of Illinois Visual Arts Gallery is located on the UIS campus at One University Plaza in Springfield. Visit www.uis.edu/visualarts/visual-arts-gallery for further information.