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Making Peoria a national arts destination
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Steve Tarter Journal Star city of Peoria reporter @SteveTarter

PEORIA — John and Sharon Amdall believe that central Illinois may have another calling besides manufacturing and health care to call its own. What's calling is the arts scene.

The Washington couple do more than just talk about art in greater Peoria. They are so heavily involved that they were named ArtsPartners of the year in 2016.

Since retiring from long careers at Caterpillar Inc., the Amdalls have commissioned public sculptures, sponsored art exhibits, helped organize Peoria's Sculpture Walk Peoria, support both the Heartland Festival Orchestra and the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, and, most recently, provided a gift of six Bruce White sculptures valued at $70,000 to the village of Peoria Heights.

The couple don't just support the arts but promote what they see as an underrated asset in this area.

"Our dream is for the greater Peoria area to have a national reputation for being an arts destination," said Sharon Amdall in a recent column crafted in comic-book style by local artists Doug and Eileen Leunig in the Community Word, a Peoria weekly.

"For this reason, we have created the Arts Mean Business Fund through the Community Foundation of Central Illinois. The fund is designed to stimulate (economic) growth through the arts," continued Sharon Amdall in the column.

John Amdall, who retired as director of research and technology at Caterpillar in 2011, sees the arts as a boon to local business. "Traditionally, economic growth is about attracting manufacturing or medical businesses but real opportunities exist to drive economic development through the arts," he said.

Arts as business

Art isn't restricted to big cities, noted Sharon Amdall, sharing a list of the most artistic mid-sized cities in America compiled by trip.com. The top three cities listed were Richmond, Va., (home of the Richmond Street Art Festival), Boise, Idaho, (with an art gallery called Freak Alley) and Ann Arbor, Mich. (site of the Ann Arbor Art Fair).

When the Boston Globe ran an editorial earlier calling for a boost in funding for the arts, it also made the case for smaller cities that took advantage of the arts for business reasons. "This page has long argued that the arts are not mere side-dishes to life across the Commonwealth but essential to it," the paper noted.

"Multiple studies have shown how the presence of the visual and performing arts — music, theater, dance, painting, and sculpture among them — contributed to what state Senate president Stanley Rosenberg recently called 'a fully operational society,'" stated the Globe in its Oct. 1 edition.

Citing a report from the Americans for the Arts, the paper pointed to the importance of art to several small-sized Massachusetts cities. One of those, Worcester (population: 184,000), saw not-for-profit arts and cultural institutions generate $125 million in economic activity, supporting more than 4,000 jobs.

Peoria assets

"We do think that the arts — not just the visual arts but performance, music and writing arts, as well — are worthy of being a greater Peoria destination that stands on its own because our perspective is that this area already has the critical mass of artistic events, activities and assets, and primarily lacks the packaging and publicity," said John Amdall.

Toward that end, the Amdalls have made it a point to document some of the public art that's already in view across central Illinois. When asked for examples, the Amdalls mentioned Google maps they've created along with pamphlets on art that are available at Bradley University, Illinois Central College, Wildlife Prairie Park (which has more than 50 bronze sculptures, including Lonnie Stewart's eagle sculpture at Hazel's Hill Overlook), Sculpture Walk 2017, Peoria Riverfront Museum and the Peoria riverfront.

"We have found that it is actually very difficult to find this information for many of the public sculptures. We need a way to make this information available to the public," said John Amdall.

Mural fest

Peoria's public art scene also includes murals, a particular interest for Doug and Eileen Leunig who have been instrumental in promoting murals throughout the Downtown as well as developing the idea of doing murals on portable canvases that can adorn a building temporarily.

In 2018, the couple wanted to go a step further and stage a Mural Fest in October that would encourage mural making at specific locations with pop-up activities including street performers, food vendors and artists' demonstrations.

"Cities of all sizes are having great success with various kinds of festivals. We know Peoria could succeed if we want to work together to do it," said Doug Leunig.

"One of the largest in this country is Art Prize in Grand Rapids, Mich., where they now offer a prize to the top mural in the $250,000 range," he said.

Eileen Leunig said the mural offers flexibility. "Anything you can photograph, you can turn into a mural — a dancer in action, for example," she said.

The Leunigs also want to encourage young people to develop murals. "Kids, even down into middle school, can create art that can be put on vinyl and put on the side of the building," said Doug Leunig, pointing to the work of Sterling Middle School students who, under the leadership of art teacher Jack Clifford, recently created a mural for the school district's administration building.

Riverfront museum

As CEO of the Peoria Riverfront Museum, John Morris has openly stated he wants Peoria defined as "the greatest arts community in America."

"I refuse to live by this identity that we used to be the headquarters of Caterpillar," he said.

Becoming the greatest arts spot "starts with the recognition of existing assets — which they are many," said Morris.

"The museum has invested in the emerging arts in this community," he said, referring to the Emergence exhibit that runs through Jan. 14 at the museum.

"The exhibit catalog will be out in January, listing all 57 artists," said Morris.

But the museum's involvement with local artists won't end there, he said. "There are many more artists in this area. For the museum, we're involved in the constant celebration of creativity," said Morris, who hears a lot about the need for greater collaboration among the many arts-presenting organizations in this area.

"If we all live in the same neighborhood and I plant flowers in my yard and someone down the street does the same, hopefully, others will be inspired to do the same," he said.

"We don't have to collaborate to make it a beautiful neighborhood," said Morris, adding that progress on the arts front will be measured by individual participation.

"We need people to put up a painting, an outdoor sculpture or to get local youth as musicians for a Christmas party," he said.

Art fair

The one art event that may have done the most to further the Peoria area's reputation for the arts is the Peoria Art Guild's annual Fine Arts Fair that just celebrated its 55th year in September.

The nationally-recognized show has been displaying art on the Peoria riverfront since 1998.

"We bring 8,000 to 10,000 people to the riverfront over the weekend of the fair. I think the estimate of the economic impact of bringing in 150 artists for three days and the crowds that follow is over a million dollars," said Cathi Hawkinson, who directed her 14th fair this past summer.

Lori Luthy, a Art Guild board member for the past three years, credits both Hawkinson and the Peoria area for the show's success. "The Peoria area doesn't realize what a gem we have here," she said.

But you can't stand pat, said Luthy. "We're open to new ideas. Art fairs are changing. Artists are selling more online. Fairs have to be more social," she said, pointing to the art fair held in the St. Louis area.

"There's a party atmosphere at the show on Friday night with entertainment, food and drink. Most of the selling takes place on Friday," said Luthy, noting that the St. Louis show runs Friday and Saturday instead of the Saturday-Sunday set-up for the Peoria show.

Artists

Supporting the idea of Peoria as an arts center is Jacob Grant, whose Wheel Art pottery studio is at the Mill building at the corner of Washington and Persimmon streets.

"Art isn't just about the finished product. It's not just about making art to sell," he said, noting that his operation caters to getting people involved in classes, birthday parties and summer camps.

"Art helps us not be robots. It opens paths to creativity," he said.

While he encourages people to put their hands in clay, Grant is also aware of the Peoria art scene.

"I became aware there a lot of people in the arts here," he said. "There's an art culture here. But not enough people know about it."

But the Peoria art scene shouldn't be compared to Chicago, but rather cities like Asheville, N.C., said Grant, describing the art scene in the North Carolina city as "very pure, very grassroots."

Steve Boyd is another artist with his Livbigstudios at the Mill. While he's been an artist all his life, Boyd, 62, has retired from the day jobs he's had and now devotes all his time to painting and drawing.

"I was a massage therapist for 18 years and did art on the side, but now I'm cooking like crazy at the Mill," he said. "I had a studio in the Murray Building in the mid- to late-'80s, so I've been around the art scene here for a while."

For the art scene to take off, he wants to see "a little bit of fertilizer" from local government. "Art needs to be rolling at a community level or it can lose steam," he said.

There's another thing need for arts to really prosper in the Peoria area, said Boyd.

"It will take some open minds."

Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 or starter@pjstar.com. Follow him at Twitter@SteveTarter and facebook.com/tartersource.

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