Horace Greeley, in an 1865 editorial in the New York Tribune, is credited as saying “Go west, young man!” More than 150 years hence, creatives Jonathon and Nikki Romain relocated from the west—Los Angeles by way of the west side of Chicago—with big plans for the school bearing the famed newspaperman’s name.
Peoria Public Schools’ Greeley School had lain vacant for some time, but still, like Horace, it had a story left to tell. “The building has good bones. For the most part it’s still level. The roof is sound,” Jonathon shares. “The surprises have mostly been pleasant, with the exception of a colony of bats that neglected to show themselves in the final walkthrough.” The bats are gone, but the vision remains.
A Hub for the Arts
The Romains purchased the three-story school—located at the corner of NE Jefferson and Evans on the near north side—for a song. They now intend to use it as a hub for the arts, welcoming schoolchildren and artisans to fill it again with happy, learning voices. “We intend to use all 50,000 square feet,” Jonathon adds.
The organization they founded is called ART, Inc.—Artists Re-envisioning Tomorrow. In 2018, the 501c3 nonprofit won a prestigious award that put them on the Peoria map. ART, Inc. received a very competitive $25,000 grant through State Farm’s Neighborhood Assist Program, based on votes from supporters on the State Farm website. The city, in turn, became even more excited about ART, Inc., as Peorians celebrated the award. “It gave us additional credibility when it came time to work with people who were in a position to help us,” Jonathon explains.
The award provided a wonderful “welcome” to Peoria for ART, Inc., although the couple has been here, somewhat under the radar, for a while now. They still operate a framing shop in the city’s Center Bluff neighborhood, though it will eventually move to the Greeley site.
Jonathon, a renowned visual artist, first came to the area as a student at Bradley University. His wife Nikki is used to larger cities, having been raised in Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas. The actress has graced stages around the world, acting and singing throughout southern California, in Las Vegas, Chicago and even Italy. Even so, the arts scene in Peoria came as a pleasant surprise to her. “To some extent, Jonathon undersold it,” Nikki confides. “The community theater scene in the area, for example, is excellent for a city Peoria’s size.”
Potpourri of Creativity
With its very functional auditorium, the Greeley building offers a wealth of space for the theater arts, which the Romains intend to use to stage plays and for other community events. Jonathon, for his part, is still very much an active painter. Award-winning and prolific, he sells many pieces online and at art shows throughout America, as well as to an extensive list of clients who keep coming back for more.
Brooklyn, New York was just one recent showing for the hard-working artist. “It’s never crowded on the extra mile,” he notes. “I am willing to do what others won’t.” Jonathon’s most recent honor was being named ILikeIllinois.com’s Artist of the Month for February 2019, honoring Black history, a recurring theme in his work.
Nikki, an accomplished performing artist in her own right, graduated from Chicago’s Columbia College. Her credits include shows all over the country, including Godspell, The Wiz and Steel Magnolias. Her one-woman show, Lost and Found, tells the story of how the arts saved her life. Through ART, Inc., she hopes the arts haven they are creating at Greeley School will save even more lives.
“We want to give young people access to a paradigm shift,” Nikki explains. “Dance, painting, music—a potpourri of creativity.” While access to these types of programs may be a luxury for some, the costs will be underwritten by sponsors or donors. “We will not turn anyone away,” she promises.
This may well be the actress’s most important role yet. “Everything I’ve done in my life has led up to this,” she declares. “We want to bring in great volunteers, leaving them space to be creative. We want to provide guidance and direction, but will challenge our partners to follow their own creativity.”
Hammering 10,000 Nails
The Romains seek to develop synergistic relationships among the artists the organization houses. Resident musicians may help write the score for resident playwrights’ musicals. A resident artist may work to design sets for the same musical. They envision it coming together organically. “There are many spaces for studios and Greeley is remarkably soundproof, from one classroom to another,” Nikki explains, which will help attract and maintain creative artisans.
Both Romains take an active role in teaching the arts to young students. Currently, ART, Inc.’s after-school programs welcome Peoria Public Schools students from Glen Oak, Trewyn and Manual. With an upsurge in resources and volunteers, the program will grow as well.
While the building itself is in remarkable shape for its age, it still requires repairs—some cosmetic, some more dramatic. “Hammering one nail is nothing, but hammering 10,000 [nails] is,” Jonathon admits. “What may be a small job at home is a massive job here.”
Those wishing to help the Romains save lives through the arts can become part of the “Founding 100,” a charter group of donors who will underwrite the beginning of the program and whose names will be permanently affixed to the building. It will still require between $300,000 and $400,000 to finish the necessary upgrades, which include:
- Parking lot improvements;
- Wheelchair lift and ADA-required repairs;
- Bathroom renovations;
- HVAC upgrades; and
- Theater improvements.
In addition to funding assistance, volunteers are needed to swing hammers, teach art and otherwise enrich the lives of children. Particularly needed are summer camp volunteers, as well as plumbers, administrative assistants and even attorneys. To volunteer or learn more about ART, Inc. and the Romains’ vision, visit artincpeoria.org. PM