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NEA chair kicks off nationwide ART WORKS tour in Peoria

From left to right: Carol Coletta of CEOs for Cities, Rocco Landesman of NEA, Suzette Boulais of Arts Partners.

By Libby Snyder

Rocco Landesman, newly named chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), visited Peoria Friday, November 6, to kick off his nationwide ART WORKS tour.  Peoria became the first stop on the tour after Landesman made a now-famous comment to the New York Times that he didn’t know if there was any theatre in Peoria, adding that if there was theatre in Peoria, he was sure it wasn’t as good as the Steppenwolf in Chicago.  Landesman’s off-hand comment sparked a quick response from local arts leaders, who invited him to visit Peoria and witness the city’s many cultural offerings.  Landesman replied immediately, apologizing for the comment he’d made and promising to visit Peoria soon.  Friday he delivered on that promise.

Three seniors from the Bradley University Department of Theatre Arts, Forrest Sayrs, Justine Palmisano and Rachel Strack, along with Theater Management instructor Libby Snyder, and Dean of the Slane College of Communications and Fine Arts, Dr. Jeffery Huberman, attended Friday’s events that included the Art Works Economic Development Roundtable held at the Peoria Civic Center. 

The roundtable discussion with Peoria and East Peoria civic and cultural leaders, including Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, began with Landesman thanking Peoria for the warm welcome despite “my Peoria theatre remark,” and Ardis commended Landesman for having the “intestinal fortitude to show up.”  With the air cleared, Landesman went on to explain the purpose and significance of the ART WORKS tour.

The slogan ART WORKS is a triple-entendre.  First, Landesman explained, ART WORKS is a noun — the works of art created by artists.  Second, it is a verb — art has a way of working on you, changing who you are.  Landesman recalled a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night that was life changing for him.  Third is declarative, in that artists are workers.  Arts jobs are real jobs that are part of the real economy.  Upon taking over as chair of the NEA, Landesman quickly saw the need for re-branding the arts for the times.  Arts funding has been cut dramatically, and in the current recession, lawmakers and taxpayers are interested in only what is vital to an economic turn-around.  Landesman asserts that the arts are not a frill in these times, but absolutely essential to the success of our cities and our nation.

Carol Coletta of CEOs for Cities agrees with Landesman’s assertion.  She said she approaches the arts as “an agnostic” — explaining that she is an advocate for cities that work, and because the arts are a proven vital component of successful cities, she supports the arts.  Coletta said that research shows that the arts are critical to companies attracting talent.  Recent college grads are looking for jobs in cities that are vibrant, cities where you can “stumble on the fun.”  Coletta noted that the redevelopment of Peoria’s downtown warehouse district as a home for the arts and entertainment is at the heart of bringing a city to life and creating a city that works.

Dean Huberman spoke passionately on behalf of Bradley University and Arts Partners, a local arts support and advocacy organization for which he serves as a board member, stating that Bradley and the Peoria community are partners in creating and maintaining a thriving arts scene, and that “if the NEA succeeds, we succeed.  Let’s make sure ART WORKS works!”

While in Peoria, Landesman also participated in a public Q&A session hosted by WTVP 47, and took in a performance of Rent at Eastlight Theatre.  The tour will continue on to Landesman’s hometown of St. Louis later this month.

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