Transcript of Art Works Podcast with Peoria Arts and Civic Leaders

Rocco Landesman: "In the first aspect of it, artworks is- is a noun. It refers to the stuff that artists create. In the second incarnation, art works is- is a verb, and it refers to how art works on people. It affects us. It changes us. We're different people after encountering great works of art than we were before. And the third notion is that art works in an almost literal way, that artists work. They're part of the real economy. The arts jobs are real jobs. Arts workers, the 5.7 million of them in the United States that have arts-related jobs, that they are an important part of the real economy.

Jo Reed: That was Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Rocco Landesman, talking about his vision for the agency, which can be summed up in the phrase, "Art Works." And welcome to Artworks, its companion podcast. It's the program that goes behind the scenes to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed. The Art Works national tour has begun. Chairman Rocco Landesman is spending the next six months learning and highlighting the way that art works in neighborhoods and towns across America. The tour was kicked off in Peoria, Illinois, the epitome of middle America and home to a thriving arts community. Here to tell us how art works in Peoria are Suzette Boulais, Executive Director of ArtsPartners; Kathy Chitwood, Executive Director of Eastlight Theatre; Pat Sullivan, a developer; and Ryan Spain, city council member. Welcome to everybody.

Kathy Chitwood: Hello, Jo.

Suzette Boulais: Hello, Jo.

Pat Sullivan: Hello.

Ryan Spain: Hello.

Jo Reed: First of all, thank you so much for coming and talking to us. I appreciate that. And Suzette, if you don't mind, I'd just like to begin with you. If you don't mind, just giving me a little background about ArtsPartners?

Suzette Boulais: Jo, we are an arts organization funded by the city of Peoria that promotes the arts as a vital component of our area's economic and cultural enrichment.

Jo Reed: Kathy, as the executive director of Eastlight Theatre, tell me a little bit about Eastlight Theatre.

Kathy Chitwood: Eastlight Theatre was created through an intergovernmental agreement between the city of East Peoria, Fond du Lac Park District, and East Peoria High School. That's a pretty amazing statement, because for three governmental bodies to agree on anything is amazing, and that what they would agree upon is to create an arts organization is even more wonderful, and that happened in 1992, and we are a regional community theater, and we serve the amateur artists of central Illinois and put on musical theater for all of the patrons of Central Illinois.

Jo Reed: What's so interesting, I think, about Eastlight Theatre is that it came together because the community came together and said, "We need a theater."

Kathy Chitwood: Yes, and that's a different definition for, quote, "community theater." Most community theaters in the nation are created by a group of people who love to do theater, and they come together and say, "Let's start a theater." This was a community that said, "We want a theater," and I think it's a wonderful new definition for what a community theater can be.

Jo Reed: I think so too. Was it a difficult thing to get off the ground"

Kathy Chitwood: Not at all. East Peoria has an annual festival called the Festival of Lights, and in 1991 they were looking for a new attraction for it, and we said, "Well, let's do a musical show for you. We'll do Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." And the powers that be came to the show, saw it, and said, "Oh my gosh. Can we do this year-round?" And we said, "Yes we can." And so the Mayor and the Superintendent of the high school, and the head of the park district got together and pooled resources so each one contributes to the theater space, money, all kinds of things in order to support our theater so that we don't have the kind of overhead that most theaters do, and it's been working now for-- we're getting close to 20 years.

Jo Reed: Wow. And it's an amateur theater company. So explain to me what that means.

Kathy Chitwood: It means that our shows are staged by community members. So we've got doctors and lawyers and teachers and, you know, young people that maybe are interested in becoming professional someday. I like to kinda call us a pre-professional theater, because our young people are really developing into folks that are following their life's path, and making theater their work. And we've got a lot of 'em now out in New York, and some that are- are succeeding very, very well. So community theater, pre-professional, whatever you want to call it, or if you decided you just wanted to be a mom and dad and live in Central Illinois, this is where you go to express yourself.

Jo Reed: And I know this is a hard question, and maybe Suzette or Councilman Spain, or- or Pat Sullivan can tackle it. So you don't have to pat yourself on the back, Kathy. <laughs>

Kathy Chitwood: <laughs>

Jo Reed: But how have you seen the Eastlight Theatre sort of help enhance the arts community in Peoria as a whole.

Suzette Boulais: We have a lot of regional pride, Jo, and Eastlight across the river in East Peoria adds tremendously to the cultural flavor, and not just that, but to mention the real professional flair that our Eastlight productions have.

Jo Reed: Pat, you are a developer, and you are largely responsible, or the driving force behind the revamping of the warehouse district in Peoria. Can you first describe what the warehouse district is?

Pat Sullivan: The warehouse district's right on the river, Illinois River, with a lot of old unutilized buildings; of course, five, six, seven-story tall, all brick, and beautiful architectural. When I say underutilized, a lot ofcompanies have gone to the one-story, flat, big buildings so their fork trucks can go and pick the things up, put 'em on trucks. So it left a lot of these warehouses that were whiskey warehouses, that were pharmaceutical warehouses, grocery warehouses. They at that time, they built up, and not out. And so we've been taking buildings at a time, one building at a time, and redeveloping it. And one of the neatest things that's happened to us as a company isto get together with the artists and so forth, and help us design, help us understand art. You get a bunch of old construction guys like us. They have no idea what goes on, in our buildings alone, we've had dinner theaters, we've had national-known artists and other performances that are going on all the time, and never had an idea how much work that these artists and performers put in. unbelievable amount of time and hard work, and heartbreaks and joys and so it's been a great learning experience for us as construction people and developers, that it is a very important part to develop any area to make sure that art gets put in there, no matter what kind of form it is. And we've been very fortunate because we've been able to have murals put on some of our walls to show what's going on in Peoria.

Jo Reed: You renamed the complex, didn't you?

Pat Sullivan: Yes, it's... <laughs> Yes, we were discovered by the French, and some of theoriginal French farms are right out in our front, right by the Illinois River, and we had an archeological dig, and we have this documented at Springfield, Illinois. So we called it "Le Vieux Carre," which means "Old Quarters," and some of the artists helped us call it that, and we have a lot of wrought iron and so forth. So we wanna bring back that feel of-- in the brick and everything-- of the French Quarters.

Jo Reed: How old are the buildings in the complex?

Pat Sullivan: Some of them are over 100 years old, a little over 110 years old on one or two. And great history to theem. Like I say, whiskey warehouses, warehouses where they stored stuff for Al Capone, and he had trucks driving it up to Chicago and stuff. Got a lot of great history in them. But we take one at a time, revamp 'em, and hopefully bring in some art with it, and usually the artist will come into an older building first. But we have to make sure it's safe with city codes and everything.

Jo Reed: Pat, you recycle a lot of materials, don't you?

Pat Sullivan: Yes, nothing gets by me. Even the junk men come by with their trucks and ask me if I want it, so.

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Pat Sullivan: We just revamped an area, 6500 square feet for some office space, and some steel that came off the roof we were able to reuse and cut and make a big wrought iron deck out of it, and a lot of the old plaster that's not quite sticking on con- on the brick walls, we take out what's loose and then paint the rest, and then have artists come in and draw murals on it, and show some kind of history of what the buildings were they first built and what they were used for. So it's been a lot of fun doing that. But like I said, my my basements and extra warehouse space is getting full, so I gotta start another project.

Jo Reed: Councilman Spain, you are a great supporter of the arts in Peoria. Everybody said I needed to talk to you, because you are somebody who is really a real force behind the arts in the municipal government.

Ryan Spain: You know, it's not about my support of the arts, though. I really think it is about the city of Peoria's support for the arts, and the way that our citizens really embrace arts and culture activities as an important quality of life issue. And so the idea that a mid-sized American community like Peoria places such a high degree of importance on arts activities, and is willing to put tax dollars forward to fund those types of activities, is really important. And so I credit the citizens of Peoria with having arts as an important part of their lifestyle here.

Jo Reed: And this certainly goes with what you're saying, is that Peoria seems to be the kind of city that, in fact, funds organizations like ArtsPartners.

Ryan Spain: Yeah, that's exactly the case, and I think it's part of a message that we have in Peoria, that no matter what size community you may call home, arts activities are critically important. And we use arts and culture as a primary way that we sell our community to others. And particularly as communities across the nation are in competition with each other to attract businesses, to attract talented individuals to move into our communities, arts activities, the- the importance of art is second to none, and these are some of the competitive issues that we use as a community, that we use in Peoria, to differentiate ourselves from other locations. Because we recognize that our community stands out when we place an emphasis on the arts.

Jo Reed: It's amazing how much public art is in Peoria. Doing some research about Peoria, because unfortunately, I haven't visited there, and I'm really embarrassed to say that, but it's true, and I wish I could have gone there with the Chairman. Unfortunately, that was not to be. Kathy Chitwood.

Kathy Chitwood: We do think that the country as a whole may put Peoria's bar low when it comes to things like arts and culture and I think somehow they-- you know, Peoria, that name has just been out there so much that I think they think they know what we are, but they don't know what we are. And I'm so glad that you Googled us, and I'm so glad that you looked, and I'm not surprised that you're going, "Wow." Because, we are. We are "wow."

Jo Reed: Ryan Spain.

Ryan Spain: Yeah, you know, Peoria is such a remarkable community. We really are one of the- the top communities of our size in- in the nation. We're recognized as one of the top five places to launch a business, we're recognized as placing a huge amount of emphasis on- on art. And, as you mentioned, not just art within a theater or within a an art studio, but public art activities, and the whole spirit that art is for everyone. Every single one of our citizens, all of our children that are in schools, need to experience art, art activities, and be involved in that way. And so for Peoria, I think we are the representation of- of a very progressive American city that recognizes how important art is, and that it's not just a- a big city, elite type of thought, that it really is something that is important for all of our citizens to experience, and the way that we can share art with everyone enriches all of our lives.

Jo Reed: And that certainly meshes with exactly what you're doing at Eastlight Theatre. Isn't that true, Kathy?

Kathy Chitwood: Yes. It- it does. We have some programs within Eastlight. One of the ones that we are most proud of is called "The Penguin Project," and it is a musical theater experience for young ar- artists with disabilities. And we started that about five years ago, because we recognized that that was an underserved population. And when Ryan says that all of our citizens should have access to the arts, we felt that they shouldn't just have to be audience members. They ought to be able to be up there on the stage, and this program is so incredibly successful, and the growth that we have seen in our artists-- it has changed their lives, and their parents will tell that to you. And we're just blessed that we had a- a gentleman here in Peoria that worked with Easter Seals, who was also in theater, who said, "I see a need," and came to me, and I said, "I'm- I'm on board with you." So those are the kind of things that happen in a town like this. The connections are close, and they're tight, and people reach out to one another, and the collaboration-- that's really to me the key word in the town of- of Peoria and Central Illinois, is when you collaborate, you can make things happen.

Jo Reed: It seems like a three-way collaboration, if I'm not mistaken, or even a four-way-- well, let's just say three, because there's the government and arts organizations; there's positive developers like Pat, and I'm sure other- other positive corporations; and then the artists coming together. <overlapping voices> Suzette, do you want to take that? Yeah.

Suzette Boulais: Yes, w- and a part of ArtsPartners job is to ensure that there are these partnerships that are in place to enhance the arts across our entire cultural board. So what we do at ArtsPartners is join artists with different businesses, and we have different cafes where the artists display their work, and we really, really enjoy this opportunity to strengthen our entire community climate through these partnerships.

Jo Reed: Because, as we said, there's a lot-- there's a lot-- of sculpture in Peoria, just out and about. I have a folder that's, I don't know, half an inch thick. I've been looking at it. We've all been completely entranced by it. A lot of it is just gorgeous.

Suzette Boulais: Yes. And in fact, that's one of ArtsPartners' publications, since we are the collective voice of all the arts. We don't just promote theater and drama and dance, but we have several publications of our public art, our public architecture, ways that we bring people to Peoria, tourists that say, "What can I do when I get to the convention center?" or "What can I do when I get to our civic center?" or "What can I do when I go to our convention bureau?" And they see all these publications that allows them to take walks around the area and learn about our historic and beautiful artistic pieces.

Jo Reed: And you also have a symphony, which is the tenth oldest in the country, as well as a youth orchestra, which is very dear to my heart.

Suzette Boulais: We sure do, and we grow artists. We have a lot of community theater, children's theater. We are very, very firm about bringing the kids in very young and pass them through years and years, and perhaps go to the point where they work at an Eastlight Theatre, and then go on and become professionals, like Kathy Chitwood's son.

Jo Reed: Pat, when you develop an area like the warehouse district, can you talk about how bringing artists in makes that area distinctive?

Pat Sullivan: Yes, it- it puts people on the street. They're- they're active. They do eat; they do drink. You know, they, <laughs>, they- they buy things. so they're very unique. It's very important to get 'em in there because that's some of your first shops. That's some of your first things that's gonna open an area like ours, and to bring-- and then all of the sudden they're bringing more people down that wanna buy their art, or see them sing, see them dance, see them-- you know, whatever, and act. But so, it's very important to get 'em in there, because they- they- they'll supply about a third of your income as a retailer, or- or what not, because they- they're there. And so you-- they- they bring a lot of people in, and that makes it very easy for some of the retail.

Jo Reed: I want to continue on that train of thought, because I think, unfortunately, it's often felt that arts somehow sucks money out of a community. You know, the National Endowment for the Arts gives grants; we are giving people's money away. But aside from just the wonder of art, and being around creativity and how that enhances the soul, it also provides an economic boost that's often overlooked. Councilman Spain.

Ryan Spain: and you're exactly right. And the idea of investing, in this case, for Peoria taxpayer dollars, into an organization like ArtsPartners, or into arts activities in general, is not an altruistic decision. I mean, it's very calculated. First, we care about the characteristics and quality of life for our community. but at the same time, we realize that every dollar invested into the arts has a multiplier of- of sometimes six to eight additional dollars, depending on the research that you're looking at. And so the idea of investing in- in arts and receiving that type of return on investment for those dollars is very profound for communities. And so the economic development impact of an arts investment is significant, and we're seeing that pay off for Peoria in the warehouse district. We're seeing it pay off with our community theaters. We're seeing it pay off with our civic center, which for a community our size, is quite remarkable.

And the ability of programs and activities related to arts that we're able to support in those facilities, that have been constructed with public dollars, is very profound. And so that investment of every dollar into arts returning six to eight additional dollars back to the community is one of the biggest parts of the story of why we make those investments with taxpayer dollars.

Jo Reed: And then it leads to the enhancement of Peoria, because art and art- artists, rather, and arts organization contributes to the distinctiveness of Peoria.

Ryan Spain: Absolutely. And it's that distinctiveness, it's that unique characteristics, the the feeling of of individuality and an ability for doing self-expression in a community-- that's a huge attraction for people to our community, and particularly for young people, which as we're looking for attracting jobs, and attracting businesses to our community that are looking for these types of talented individuals with unique skills, what a great selling point for Peoria to have this type of environment ready and attractive then for businesses and residents.

Jo Reed: Kathy Chitwood.

Kathy Chitwood: I do think that there is that thought out there that for some reason public money should be spent for "real" jobs, like building roads, and we're not looked upon, as artists, as having real jobs. And somehow we've got to turn that tide. We've got to work harder as art communities to band together to make sure that the story is told, and told well, that we contribute so much. We're excited in Peoria because we're getting stronger and stronger as an arts community, and we are grateful for ArtsPartners, because without them, who would pull us together? So the fact that the city of Peoria has provided us with ArtsPartners is a wonderful, glorifying thing.

Jo Reed: Suzette Boulais.

Suzette Boulais: Jo, it certainly is an honor to work with all of our arts members, arts community, and to show how the arts really touch the heart, they fire the imagination, but they also pour economic lifeblood into our community. So we really enjoy all aspects of promoting the arts in that way. And when Ryan was talking about how important the arts are to our economic climate, we came up with a neat publication that goes to the different hospitals, goes to our major corporations, called "The Arts as Big Business," that shows that the arts bring the Peoria area nearly 39 million dollars a year, and we do try to attract our potential creative class employees to show that we have a vibrant, rich arts community so that it is an attractor when they do come live here.

Jo Reed: If you were building a scenario for Peoria's economic development, what role would artists and arts organizations play in that? And I'll start with you, Suzette.

Suzette Boulais: Something that we're trying to work on right now is to help develop our warehouse district into an artist district, and Pat's done a good job starting off, but there are a couple blocks right where- in the facility where I work that are in very, very blighted areas, and these are big, massive warehouses, 16, 20 thousand square feet, that if we can somehow get the developers and the artists to work there, that we can have commerce and galleries, and that some of our artists can both live and work in this space. We want to bring back the blighted area of Peoria. Because during the 60s or so-- Pat, you might correct me-- but a lot of the commerce went north and went to the suburbs, and we saw some blighted areas in our downtown area. We want to be a Baltimore and a Chicago, and bring back these areas where they're thriving with artists and thriving with cultural activities.

Jo Reed: Pat Sullivan.

Pat Sullivan: We're trying to implement some things like for every square foot that we lease or something to be able to put it towards an art organization, or something. that way, as the warehouse district grows, this will make sure that we infuse the arts in that area. We have the warehouses that Suzette talked about, and now we're taking it into the next block. And hopefully the next block will be Suzette's.

Suzette Boulais: <laughs>

Pat Sullivan: But it's gonna happen. It's happening in other parts of the country, and it just takes a little time, little money. Another thing we're trying to do is I'm working with Senator Durbin, is to do a boardwalk right on the riverfront with-- for every 300 foot, we'll put some kind of art sculpture or writing on what the area was, what- why these buildings are here, who they were, and so we- we've been talking to him for a couple of years on that. And of course, everybody knows the economic mess everybody's in, but someday it may come, and it'll be a nice boardwalk which the Illinois River in Peoria doesn't have.

Jo Reed: Kathy Chitwood.

Kathy Chitwood: I think my vision, Jo, would be that the arts would become so much a part of the fabric of everything that happens in the city of Peoria and Central Illinois that we wouldn't even have to remind people anymore, "Don't forget about the arts." It would be there in every building that we build or refurbish. We would take advantage of the incredibly talented people that live right here, that maybe don't do it as their profession, but who have the passion in their hearts and are still artists at heart. And we just wouldn't have to think about it. It just would be.

Jo Reed: Councilman Spain?

Ryan Spain: You know, we're doing a number of different activities, and I think the cumulative effect of them is very important. So we're looking at artist relocation activities, creative targeted environments for live-work studios for artists, creating co-ops that allow artists to come together and collectively advantage each other in some common areas. We are doing downtown sculpture activities and riverwalk promotion to create even more public art opportunities for our citizens. And then I think the partnerships that we have are very important, and so the partnership that exists between the city of Peoria and an organization like ArtsPartners is very important.Bbut we need to continue to work to expand those partnerships and include other partners. And you know, the very idea that we're now having this type of dialog with the NEA is very important. And the circumstances of how we all got together was pretty unique. But I hope that we can send a message that art activities are important in communities of all sizes, and while I'm certainly very aware of limited budgets and stretched scope of activities that the NEA may have and other partners, the idea that we can all work together in a number of different areas has to be important. And so I hope that the type of reaction that Peoria exhibited in recent months is an expression, or maybe a validation that art is important everywhere in this country, and that collectively, we all have to work together to make sure that no type of community is excluded, and that we all have some sort of shared interest in moving forward and developing these types of partnerships that can only enrich the quality of life for individual communities and the overall importance that we place on arts as a nation.

Jo Reed: Rocco Landesman, the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is kicking off his vision called "Art Works" in Peoria. Talk about what that means for Peoria for him to be doing that.

Ryan Spain: I hope that what it means is that the NEA and the chairman, really recognize the importance that we place on arts in Peoria, the idea that art still plays in Peoria. even going back 80 to 90 years back to our vaudeville days, that same sort of spirit of Peoria as a pioneer, a test and a validation for vaudeville shows, for new products, for a sense of creativity that we hope can exist throughout the entire nation-- that still exists here in Peoria. And when we say that arts play in Peoria, we really mean it. And so having the chairman here to kick off this discussion of "Art Works" is very important to us, and we're very grateful for it.

Jo Reed: Suzette?

Suzette Boulais: We see it as actually very symbolic. As Ryan was saying, look how Rocco wants art to work, both as a noun and a verb. And here in Peoria, our entire promotional strategy is that art plays. So what a complementary pair, that art works, and art plays, and when they work together, think of the joy and the creativity that can be created. And once artists create with joy through their artwork, they are happier, more inspired people. Happier, more inspired people are more inspiring to those around them. And when a- a community and a people are inspired, that elevates the entire flavor of this community. So we really are ever-reaching, and it means everything to us that Rocco could have kicked this off in D.C. or San Francisco, or New York City, or Chicago, or at a- a Metropolitan Art, or a Broadway, but he chose Peoria, Illinois, where the arts play.

Jo Reed: And Kathy, he- he's coming to Peoria, because you and Suzette invited him.

Kathy Chitwood: Yes, wasn't that just-- it was lovely that he accepted our invitation. We are so thrilled about that. He was so gracious. And we extended that invitation because we wanted him to know what we have here. What I would say about him using Peoria as his kick-off place-- he picked the right place.

Jo Reed: Thank you all so much. I appreciate it.

Suzette Boulais: Thanks, Jo.

Kathy Chitwood: Thanks, Jo.

Pat Sullivan: Thank you.

Ryan Spain: Thank you.

Jo Reed: That was Suzette Boulais, Executive Director of ArtsPartners; <"Take Five" begins> Kathy Chitwood, Executive Director of Eastlight Theatre; Pat Sullivan, developer; and city council member, Ryan Spain. We were talking about the art works in Peoria. For more information about Art Works, or about any of the work that the NEA does, go to www.arts.gov. That's www.arts.gov. You've been listening to Artworks, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Our theme music is "Take Five," by NEA jazz master and National Medal of Arts winner, Dave Brubeck. It's performed by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, and used courtesy of Desmond Music and Derry Music Company. I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.