Arts & Entertainment

Creativity and Community

From live performance to the visual arts, Peoria is becoming a national arts destination, while an array of unique entertainment options means you’ll never run out of things to do.

Big Picture Festival
The first annual Big Picture Festival in 2018 was a grassroots collaboration of artists and arts organizations—and a celebration of the vibrancy of Peoria's art community. Photo: David Vernon

A community’s quality of life cannot always be measured in dollars and cents. In our technology-driven world, art and culture bring people together and renew our common humanity. The Greater Peoria region is bursting with creativity—bringing color, inspiration and meaning into our everyday lives.

The Peoria Civic Center has been an anchor of downtown for nearly four decades, hosting some 400 events each year, from large arena shows to intimate theater experiences. Recent concerts by Blake Shelton, Bob Seger and John Mellencamp have smashed records for ticket sales, earning it recognition from Pollstar Magazine as one of the top venues in the country. The Civic Center is also home to the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, Peoria Ballet, Peoria Rivermen and Bradley Braves men’s basketball, as well as the setting for community events and conventions.

God Bless America
Seward Johnson's 25-foot "God Bless America" installation sits outside the Peoria Riverfront Museum.

Just blocks away, the Smithsonian-affiliated Peoria Riverfront Museum hosts national and international touring exhibitions and features many unique opportunities for learning, culture and fun—including a digital 3D theater, state-of-the-art planetarium, Illinois River Encounter gallery and the IHSA Peak Performance Center.

In 2019, the museum is celebrating “The Year of Invention”—showcasing innovation and achievement in art, science and history in central Illinois and beyond. The unique lineup of exhibitions includes “The Art of the Brick,” the world’s largest LEGO exhibit, and the internationally-acclaimed “Da Vinci the Genius,” featuring the art and inventions of Leonardo da Vinci and the world-exclusive “The Secrets of Mona Lisa,” with 3D versions of da Vinci’s most famous work.

The museum is also home to the Peoria Holocaust Memorial, where a display of 11 million buttons symbolizes the individual victims of the Nazi regime of World War II. Next door, the Doug Oberhelman Caterpillar Visitors Center offers a close look at the manufacturing giant, from its humble beginnings to its present-day innovations. The venue gives interactive flair to the company’s past, present and future—highlighted by a 60-plus seat theater inside a life-sized 797F Mining Truck.

The Peoria Public Library has been a community staple for more than 125 years, hosting book signings, art exhibits, lectures, workshops and more, while the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum is an anchor at Glen Oak Park—a daylong destination for play with six themed, hands-on exhibit areas for children.

ArtsPartners of Central Illinois is the region’s leading cheerleader for the arts and its impact on cultural and economic development. ArtsPartners connects local arts groups and facilitates major initiatives like Sculpture Walk Peoria, ArtPop Peoria and IGNITE Peoria—a daylong showcase of creativity that takes over the Civic Center every August.

Nearby, the Peoria Art Guild is experiencing a significant resurgence, hosting regular exhibitions, hands-on classes and a range of collaborative art initiatives. 2019 marks the 57th anniversary of the Fine Art Fair, presented by the Guild every September and nationally ranked among the finest art fairs in the country.

Meanwhile, a pair of new arts organizations have taken the community by storm over the last year. Artists ReEnvisioning Tomorrow (ART, Inc.) is the brainchild of Peoria artist Jonathon Romain and Nikki Romain, who are transforming an old school building into a thriving arts center. The Romain Arts & Culture Community Center opened its doors in the summer of 2019 with a STEAM-inspired arts camp, including classes in filmmaking, visual arts, coding, drama and dance—and many ambitious plans for the future!

Joining forces with ART Inc. is Big Picture, a visionary team of artists and arts advocates working to shed light on Peoria’s creative potential. Big Picture has three main areas of focus: arts education for all ages, public murals and art, and an arts festival. The inaugural Big Picture Street and Film Festival was held in October 2018—an extravaganza of live performances, interactive visual arts, and much more.

A diverse range of artists and creators call Peoria’s Warehouse District home, with studio space at The Mill and other historic buildings. The Contemporary Art Center has been a hub of art and culture for more than two decades, featuring monthly exhibitions and classes, dance lessons, and weekly concerts of jazz, R&B and blues. It is also home to the Central Illinois Artists Organization (CIAO), a collective working to promote the fine arts in Peoria.

At the southern end of the Warehouse District, the Prairie Center of the Arts is celebrating its 16th year as an international artist residency program, having attracted more than 200 artists from all over the world. It also hosts a community book arts and printmaking facility, offering memberships, studio access, classes and workshops. Just down the street is Casa de Arte, a new addition to the local scene showcasing specialty drinks and local artwork, and Wheel Art Pottery, offering classes for beginners and memberships for experienced potters.

Over on West Main Street, Studios on Sheridan is home to an art gallery, escape rooms and artist studios showcasing fine art, jewelry, ceramics, glass, photography and more. It’s also a popular venue for special events, from pop-up markets to live performances. Two blocks away, Yaku Peoria hosts an exhibition series called “SNAX”—(S)mall (N)omadic (A)rtistic e(X)periences—in support of its larger mission: to repurpose a historic church as an international cultural center.

All of these venues open to the public for First Fridays, a monthly art walk and one of Peoria’s most popular cultural events. Across the river, the Tazewell Art Loop showcases creativity in Morton, Pekin, Tremont and Delavan—highlighting exhibits, demonstrations, live performances, and local food and retail on the fourth Friday of the month. Meanwhile, Peoria Heights is hosting Second Saturday events, with artists lining Prospect Road amidst its eclectic shops and restaurants.

Along with rich arts programming at Illinois Central College, the Morton Fine Arts Association helps spearhead the arts in Tazewell County. In Peoria, Bradley University’s Heuser Art Center and Hartmann Center for the Performing Arts showcase the arts year-round; Project 1612 hosts resident artists in an artist-run alternative space; and the Fine Arts Society of Peoria and Illinois Art League present regular lectures, workshops and exhibits.

Chuck and Joe Gabbert outside the Gabbert Art Park

From sculptures on the street to murals on buildings, Greater Peoria is exploding with public creativity. Sculpture Walk Peoria, an ArtsPartners initiative, places the work of national and international artists on the streets of Peoria, rotating on a yearly basis. Every May, a new slate of works joins a growing collection of permanent sculptures in and around downtown Peoria.

Alongside the Peoria County Courthouse, a massive portrait of President Abraham Lincoln by artist Doug Leunig looms large over downtown. Besides honoring Lincoln’s legacy, “Abraham Blue” is intended to raise awareness about depression and mental health issues. The sprawling piece was unveiled during the 2018 Big Picture Arts Festival, which also saw the addition of four, colorful new murals to Peoria’s Warehouse District.

Nearby at the Gabbert Art Park, a slate of five rotating murals bring vibrancy and dynamism to this once-drab industrial part of town. The park also features a Little Free Library, a granite sculpture by local artist Matt Matheny, and a hand-painted MG convertible that changes colors and designs on a regular basis.

In Peoria Heights, six large-scale sculptures by world-renowned artist Bruce White were installed along Prospect Avenue last year, where a new public art walk and docent-led tours have created another local arts destination.

Large-scale art is also going up on area billboards via ArtPop Peoria. The collaborative effort between Adams Outdoor Advertising and ArtsPartners places the work of local artists high in the sky at an unusually large scale: on 14x48-foot billboards. ArtPop is a breath of fresh air for local commuters and area travelers—and a fantastic showcase for the area’s many talented artists.

The Monarch Music Hall in north Peoria presents an eclectic mix of national touring acts and live entertainment, while the Tailgate N’ Tallboys music festival hosts top country acts on the Peoria riverfront every summer. In nearby Chillicothe, Three Sisters Park is home to Summer Camp, one of the nation’s top music festivals, attracting more than 20,000 people for a three-day spring extravaganza of live music and camping.

In the summertime, there’s no better place to catch your favorite performers than at the CEFCU Center Stage, with its gorgeous riverfront backdrop. The Central Illinois Jazz Society brings jazz to the area year-round, while every June, the Peoria Bach Festival celebrates the great Baroque composer.

Peoria Symphony Orchestra
The 2,244-seat Peoria Civic Center Theater is used for concerts, Broadway shows, ballet, orchestra concerts and other events.

The Peoria Symphony Orchestra is the nation’s 14th-oldest symphony, performing classic orchestral works by legendary composers while presenting challenging contemporary music in a variety of genres. Many of its guest performers spend time in the community through artist residencies, and additional outreach activities include preschool programs, master classes and more.

The Heartland Festival Orchestra is another local favorite—a chamber orchestra comprised of the area’s finest professional musicians—while Youth Music Illinois, formerly the Central Illinois Youth Symphony, helps young musicians develop their talents through the power of live performance.

Illinois Central College is home to numerous in-residence groups, including the Prairie Wind Ensemble, Heart of Illinois Chorus and Philharmonic Chorale. From the Peoria Municipal Band and Heritage Ensemble to the Morton Civic Chorus, Peoria Area Civic Chorale and beyond, Greater Peoria is home to a wide range of community choruses, chorales and ensembles.

Peoria Ballet has been a leader in dance performance and instruction for over 50 years, while Central Illinois Ballet and the Cornerstone Academy for Performing Arts offer additional options for ballet and dance instruction. From classical Indian dance to salsa to ballroom dancing, there’s something for everyone in Greater Peoria.

New on the scene is the Betty Jayne Brimmer Center for the Performing Arts in Peoria Heights, which launched earlier this year. Its developer, central Illinois native Kim Blickenstaff, recently purchased the Scottish Rite Cathedral and is assisting renovations at the Peoria Women’s Club—both in downtown Peoria—with eyes on reinvigorating a larger theater district.

Peoria’s rich theater scene is rather remarkable for a midsized community. Peoria Players Theatre is one of the nation’s oldest community theaters, celebrating its 100th anniversary last year, while Corn Stock Theatre features both an outdoor tent space and an intimate, in-the-round, indoor venue.

World-class touring productions light up the Peoria Civic Center each year for the Ameren Illinois Broadway Theater Series, while in nearby Goodfield, the Barn III hosts a season of dinner theatre performances by the Conklin Players. Many other local groups comprise this rich tapestry of drama and performance art, including Eastlight Theatre, Nitsch Theatre Arts, Arc Light Productions, Prairie Folklore Theatre, Lock and Key Burlesque, Madhouse Marvels, and theater departments at Bradley, ICC and Eureka College.

In West Peoria, the Jukebox Comedy Club anchors a healthy comedy scene, spotlighting regional talent and offering a slate of headliners every weekend, while Mason City Limits is a hidden gem in rural Mason County, hosting big-city stand-up at small-town prices. PP

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