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Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010 12:39 pm

The starving arts

Springfield arts scene struggles, but survives


Young area residents this summer participated in activities at the Springfield Art Association’s Art Camp.

Fred Jarosz is a talker. To meet him, the executive director of the Hoogland Center for the Arts, and ask him about the health of the arts in Springfield is to be taken on a whirlwind aural tour of board meetings, donor outreach and Hoogland performances and workshops. With great exuberance, Jarosz peppers his tales with both new and well-rehearsed phrases designed to garner a laugh, inspire awe or elicit a raised eyebrow.

“Most people now say, ‘Shut up. You talk too much,’” Jarosz admits. So, it’s surprising to learn that Jarosz was an all but silent kid until in the fourth grade, with a push from a teacher, he portrayed Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. After retiring from Horace Mann, where he served as executive vice president and chief marketing officer, Jarosz performed as a well-paid event speaker before taking the lead at the Hoogland. “None of that would have happened, I am absolutely convinced … but for that teacher who said, ‘This is the vehicle to put this kid in to get him up there and come out.’”

It’s stories like his own that Jarosz rattles off as he tries to define what it is the Hoogland does. “This is not just an 80,000-square-foot building,” he says, describing a shy, nearly speechless child who participated in a theater workshop at the Hoogland last summer and a week later was belting play lines across a stage. “The Hoogland is magic. This place comes alive every single day, 500 times a day.”

With 15 different organizations housed under the same roof, collaboration and collective energy are some of the Hoogland’s key strengths, he says. If the Hoogland were to close, some of the groups using its facilities would also likely struggle to find comparatively low rent at a place properly equipped for their needs. It’s a thought that has run through Jarosz’s head more than once since the recession hit and the Hoogland was forced to develop multiple fundraising schemes just to make its $25,000 monthly mortgage payments. With about $3.2 million left to pay on the $4 million debt, the Hoogland has a long way to go.

Young area residents this summer participated in activities at the Springfield Art Association’s Art Camp.

“Is our position tenuous? Not tenuous, but critical,” Jarosz says. He adds that the Hoogland is in competition for donations, not only with other arts organizations but also with social service groups and schools.

Richard Haglund, director of the Sangamon Valley Youth Symphony, a resident group at the Hoogland, says it’s difficult for donors who are also supporting the homeless and the hungry to provide money to support music, which some think of as simply a frill. “But these are the future moneymakers, the people who will be contributing positively to society and the people who will be helping out people in the future,” Haglund says of the young students he conducts. He says that learning to play music at a young age teaches children discipline and prepares them for success as community leaders.

Organizations like the Springfield Area Arts Council and Illinois Symphony Orchestra offer similar reasoning in their lamentations over lost funding. Acting director Penny Wollan-Kriel says SAAC lost 45 percent of its state funding from 2007 to 2010. Combined with a 50 percent decrease in city funding and lower community contributions, the cuts mean programs and grants have been scaled back. The cuts also led to a reduced staff at SAAC, where now only one part-time employee performs the duties three people used to take on.

The Illinois Symphony Orchestra has suffered in a similar way, with a 20 percent drop in donations from 2008 to 2009 and about a 20 percent drop in ticket sales since the recession began. Its funding from the Illinois Arts Council is also half of what it was in 2007. In part, the cuts mean fewer educational programs for area children, an early symptom of a problem with huge potential to snowball, says Trevor Orthmann, ISO’s executive director.

“The opportunity for students to hear a symphony orchestra as part of their education can lead to students wanting to play instruments that develop discipline and confidence much like sports do,” Orthmann says. Developing children’s appreciation of symphonies, and other arts, is also important for developing future patrons who will support such endeavors, he adds.

The cast of Grease, performed at the Hoogland.

Building the arts

While some organizations are in survival mode, others have already expanded or are making major plans for the future.

Down the street from its Hoogland home base, the Prairie Art Alliance, a nonprofit visual artists’ association, this summer opened a second gallery at 221 South Sixth Street, Gallery II. “The H.D. Smith gallery [at the Hoogland] has always been more of an exhibit space and the sales have never been what this gallery [Gallery II] has because of the traffic,” says Jane Johnson, PAA’s executive director, explaining that the new location, two blocks north of the Hoogland, sees more foot traffic. Gallery II is already outpacing the Hoogland gallery, which in 2009 had a 9 percent increase in sales followed by a 30 percent decrease in sales this year. Johnson adds that holiday sales at the older gallery appear to be above last year’s levels.

PAA also maintains an office, a classroom and artists in residence space at the Hoogland, but much of its space is really only suitable for the more compact arts. “The Prairie Art Alliance has a classroom which is suitable for painting class, but that’s about it,” says Roland Folse, PAA vice president. Folse says artists who require more space and larger, more expensive equipment – like those in ceramics, sculpture, printmaking or glassblowing – are on their own at this point. “It’s much more efficient if several artists come together,” Folse says.

To meet that end, the Prairie Art Alliance and the Springfield Art Association are collaborating to plan a space that, like the Hoogland has done for the performing arts, would inject additional energy and cooperation into Springfield’s visual arts. “Everywhere when artists come together there’s a mixing of ideas, new things happening and excitement,” Folse says. “Almost every major community of this size and larger has something like that. It just stimulates artists to be more productive, to be more innovative and to share ideas in what they’re doing, to learn from one another.”

The Springfield International Folk Dancers is one of 15 resident organizations at the Hoogland.

The idea for a community visual arts center is still just an idea, Folse says, although PAA has been talking about it for several years. Folse says he would like to see a 17,500-square-foot structure with big, open rooms with space for such equipment as kilns as well as space for resident artists. Folse says such a project would likely require a separate foundation board, with representatives from all of Springfield’s many visual arts organizations.

Though location scouting is in its infancy and, Folse says, still very much up in the air, the Springfield Art Association is pushing for a cultural campus in the Enos Park neighborhood, where SAA is already located in the historic Edwards Place.

SAA’s executive director Betsy Dollar says she’s inspired by the Enos Park master plan, released this fall, which envisions such a development tying into Edwards Place. “I was as shocked as anyone when I first saw that, but the more I started thinking about it the better idea I thought that was,” Dollar says. “But the way to make that work is to truly bring all of the organizations … under a single umbrella and centralize the facilities and the funding.”

Dollar, who’s been in Springfield for about a year, says her immediate impression of the city is that there aren’t enough monetary resources “to support the various arts groups as they are currently splintered. The only way that we’re going to create a really strong, unified base for the visual arts and a state-of-the-art facility is if we come together,” she says.

Building a community

Those leading the charge for a community visual arts center and those urging community members to invest in the arts say such endeavors don’t just build the arts; the artists involved are known for strengthening weak parts of cities.

“A lot of times we think of the arts just as the arts, but they also bring so much more to a community in terms of economic development, including what the community offers in attracting new residents and new business to the community,” says the ISO’s Orthmann. “Many times the economic aspect of the arts and arts organizations can be somewhat overlooked by decision makers in a community.”

Dollar cites two studies that show that neighborhoods flush with artists tend to improve faster than those without, as artists’ activities increase civic involvement and bring to the area visitors who spend money at other businesses. One of the studies notes that such improvements are more likely to follow when cities build a critical mass of artists.

Members of the Sangamon Valley Youth Symphony.

“Springfield is not a magnet for artists, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be because it’s an extremely affordable place to live,” says Dollar, who suggests the city develop initiatives to attract more artists and then market those initiatives to Chicago or any other place churning out art students. “It’s an easy shot to St. Louis or Chicago, so you can go get your cultural shot or see a show or catch a movie or whatever but not be struggling with the intense overhead of being in the city.”

Arts for all

Jarosz says the “ugliest misconception” in Springfield about the arts is the idea that they’re only accessible to or enjoyed by the well-to-do.

“They have the idea that the cars that pull up in front of this door [at the Hoogland] are Mercedes, Jaguars, BMWs, and the little kids that jump out of here have on their little blue jacket with the gold buttons and little cap, and they run upstairs with their $3,000 violin and say ‘Where’s Richard? We’re here,’” Jarosz says of many community members’ perceptions. “That’s the farthest thing from the truth. The real truth is that the cars that pull up here are Fords and Plymouths and Chevys, and their parents have no money.”

That’s all the more reason for community members to help support Springfield’s arts offerings, says the local arts council’s Wollan-Kriel. “People are going to say, ‘My money is going to go to somebody who needs to eat, who needs to have a roof over their head, who needs to go to school.’ I understand that, but also there is a need for those people to have a spark in their lives called the arts.”

To justify her own and others’ efforts to promote or produce the arts during tough economic times, Wollan-Kriel points to a mantra posted on the wall of her basement office that says, “Hang in there. The arts will be around long after we’re gone.”

“It’s true, if you think about it. What’s remembered from hundreds of years ago?” Wollan-Kriel asks. “It’s the visual arts of Rembrandt, of Michelangelo, maybe Monet. It depends on the era. For the most part, unless it was a world conqueror, you’re not remembering the political people. … It’s the arts that are the lasting pieces.”

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.


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