The quality of life in a community cannot always be measured in dollars and cents. In our technology-driven world, art and culture bring people together and renew our common humanity. Here in Greater Peoria, a creative renaissance is bringing color, inspiration and meaning into our everyday lives.
New venues are popping up, and local artists—both emerging and nationally known—are coming together to create and share beauty. Businesses and philanthropists are investing in the arts, and leaders in government are committing their support as well. The future of Peoria’s arts scene has never been brighter.
CELEBRATING THE ARTS
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, Citywide Celebration of Women in the Arts, The Business of Art, Sky Art and IGNITE Peoria—all of which have become integral to the community.
The Peoria Art Guild, another pillar of Peoria’s arts scene, is experiencing a significant resurgence. For nearly six decades it has hosted the Fine Art Fair, nationally ranked among the finest in the country. More recently it has returned to hosting major exhibitions, regular classes and workshops, and numerous collaborative initiatives. Last November, the Guild partnered with Black Dog Metal Arts to host Peoria’s first all-female public iron pour, with iron casters from around the country coming to central Illinois to pour thousands of pounds of molten iron.
Meanwhile, a pair of new arts organizations have taken the community by storm. Artists ReEnvisioning Tomorrow (ART, Inc.) is the brainchild of Peoria artists Jonathon and Nikki Romain, who purchased and transformed an old school building into a center for the arts. The Romain Arts & Culture Community Center opened its doors last summer with a STEAM-inspired camp for kids—just a hint of what’s to come as it seeks to inspire and empower the community through the arts.
Joining ART, Inc. as a major cultural force is Big Picture, a team of artists and arts advocates with three primary areas of focus: arts education, murals and public art, and an annual festival. The second annual Big Picture Street and Film Festival—encompassing live performances, film screenings, interactive visual arts and hands-on activities—took place last October. Big Picture’s expanded, two-day film festival now includes international and national filmmakers, while the street festival left behind new murals in the Warehouse District that already have the community looking forward to next year.
SHOWCASING LOCAL ARTWORK
A diverse array of artists and creators call Peoria’s Warehouse District home, with studios inside The Mill and other historic buildings. The Contemporary Art Center has been a hub of Peoria arts and culture for more than two decades, hosting monthly exhibitions and classes, dance lessons, and weekly concerts of jazz, R&B and blues.
At the southern end of the Warehouse District, the Prairie Center of the Arts recently celebrated the 16th anniversary of its international artist residency program, having attracted over 200 artists from around the world. It also hosts a community book arts and printmaking facility, as well as regular exhibitions, classes and workshops. Just down the street is Casa de Arte, offering specialty food, drinks and local artwork; Ear in the Envelope, a metal stamping supply shop and studio space; and Wheel Art Pottery, offering classes for beginners and memberships for experienced potters.
On West Main Street, Studios on Sheridan at the Sunbeam Building is home to an art gallery, multiple escape rooms, and studios showcasing fine art, jewelry, ceramics, glass, photography and more. Nearby, Yaku Peoria hosts regular “SNAX” events—(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.
New artist communities continue to breathe life into the region, from the Emerging Artists Collective, a network of visual artists working to enhance local artistic opportunities, to the Peace of Heart Artist Collective, a group of artists sharing space at Northwoods Mall. Inside St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, more than a dozen artists have transformed unused classroom space into North Art Studios, a welcoming environment for artists of all kinds.
Bradley University’s Heuser Art Center and Hartmann Center for the Performing Arts showcase the arts year-round, while the Fine Arts Society of Peoria and Illinois Art League present regular lectures, workshops and exhibits. Other local gallery spaces include Exhibit A Gallery, Peoria Magazines and the Foster Gallery of Christianity and the Fine Arts.
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. Along with rich arts programming at Illinois Central College, the Morton Fine Arts Association helps spearhead the arts in Tazewell County.
PUBLIC ART ABOUNDS
From sculptures on the street to murals on buildings, Greater Peoria is bursting 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 and murals in and around downtown Peoria, including Preston Jackson’s internationally renowned Richard Pryor sculpture.
From “Abraham Blue,” Doug Leunig’s sprawling portrait of President Abraham Lincoln at the Peoria County Courthouse, to “God Bless America,” Seward Johnson’s 25-foot-tall bronze homage to Grant Wood’s iconic “American Gothic” painting, public art is promoting vibrancy across the city—plus a wealth of unique photo opportunities!
In Peoria Heights, several major developments have created another local arts destination—including the installation of six large-scale sculptures by world-renowned artist Bruce White, the inaugural Peoria Heights Fine Art Fair, formation of the Peoria Heights Arts Collaborative, and launch of the Betty Jayne Brimmer Center for the Performing Arts. Peoria-based artist Lonnie Stewart was recently commissioned to create a statue of President Theodore Roosevelt, whose 1910 visit to the Heights continues to resound through his famous account of “the world’s most beautiful drive.”
Nearby, plans for a sculpture garden inside Donovan Park are full steam ahead. Last fall the Peoria Park District approved a plan that would place six sculptures in the former golf course in 2020. The three-year plan calls for up to 12 sculptures to be in place by 2022, with fundraising efforts now underway.
Large-scale art is also going up on area billboards via Sky Art, the initiative formerly known as ArtPop Peoria. This 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. Now entering its sixth year, Sky Art is a breath of fresh air for local commuters and area travelers—and a fantastic showcase for the area’s many talented artists.
INSTITUTIONS OF CULTURE
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 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 men’s basketball, as well as a prominent setting for community events and conventions.
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. Having celebrated “The Year of Invention” in 2019, the museum’s internationally-acclaimed “Da Vinci – The Genius” exhibition continued into 2020—with a host of prominent regional and national traveling exhibitions to come.
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 over 125 years, hosting book signings, art exhibits, concerts, lectures 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.
SONG AND DANCE
From international stars performing at the Civic Center to intimate shows at coffeeshops and bars, Greater Peoria is abundant with live music of all styles and genres. Kenny’s Westside Pub is a top destination for national touring bands, Mad Hatter’s Pub in West Peoria is a newcomer on the scene, and a diverse range of musical acts can be found nearly every weekend in Peoria Heights, whether at the Twelve Bar, Pizza Works, Pour Brothers or Slow Hand Craft BBQ.
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 springtime extravaganza. And all summer long, 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.
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 a local chamber orchestra featuring some of the area’s finest professional musicians, while Youth Music Illinois and Peoria Area Performing Arts Studio help young performers develop their talents.
Greater Peoria is also home to a wealth of community choruses, chorales and ensembles, from the Peoria Municipal Band and Heritage Ensemble to the Morton Civic Chorus, Peoria Area Civic Chorale and beyond. Illinois Central College hosts numerous in-residence groups, including the Prairie Wind Ensemble, Heart of Illinois Chorus and Philharmonic Chorale.
Peoria Ballet has been a leader in dance performance and instruction for over 50 years, while Central Illinois Ballet and its Cornerstone Academy 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.
LIGHTING UP THE STAGE
Peoria’s rich theater scene is rather remarkable for a midsized community. Peoria Players Theatre is one of the nation’s oldest community theaters, and Corn Stock Theatre features both an outdoor tent space and an intimate, in-the-round, indoor venue.
Developer Kim Blickenstaff recently returned to his central Illinois roots and has invested substantially in local arts and culture. His first project to come online was the Betty Jayne Brimmer Center for the Performing Arts in Peoria Heights, named for his mother, a former Big Band dancer. He then purchased the historic Scottish Rite Theatre and a pair of world-class Steinway pianos—one for each venue. He is also assisting with renovations at the Peoria Women’s Club, with eyes on reinvigorating a larger downtown theater district.
World-class touring productions light up the Peoria Civic Center each year for the Ameren Illinois Broadway Theater Series, while in rural Goodfield, the Barn III hosts dinner theatre performances by the Conklin Players. Many other local groups comprise a 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 national 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