Embracing the arts is essential

Austin Happel

By Christina Peluso

This is the first part of a three-day series chronicling the economic growth and development in Champaign.

Part One – The Creative Class

Since 2002, Richard Florida’s theory of the creative class has spread across the country. Communities have been looking to Florida’s book for answers to their economic woes. His answer is to foster a community where creativity flourishes. Culture and creativity improve quality of life and therefore spur economic growth.

Linda Scott, an associate professor at the University in advertising, communications research, art and design and gender and women’s studies, conducted a study with students on the relationship of the arts to Champaign. Part of the study included reading Florida’s book “The Rise of the Creative Class.”

“Having a creative community is a central part of a community,” Scott said.

Scott, who worked on a large-scale project examining the economy, industry and perceptions of Chicago, decided to conduct a local study because of the current increase in growth. Scott also wanted to conduct the study because, as an amateur artist herself, she believes arts are an integral part of a community.

She also felt the study was pertinent because the University’s success depends on the community. It is difficult to attract and retain faculty, Scott said, attributing this problem to the quality of life.

Scott decided to study the lack of market for art in Champaign, focusing on visual art. During the study, which surveyed 300 people, Scott and students interviewed artists, gallery owners, professors and the media.

At the conclusion of the study, Scott found that there is a “very active, pretty little arts community.” The problem, she said, is that it is relatively unknown. There is not enough display space for people to see art being produced.

Scott emphasized that the arts movement needs “grass roots growth.” Big events that come to Assembly Hall are not what’s needed, she said.

Scott also explained that professors producing art is also not what the community wants. It needs local people creating art, she said, because it has to have people within the community producing art.

“What draws creative types is the ability to interact with other creative types,” Scott said. “We need creative people from across the board. It’s not the entertainment, it’s the people.”

Scott also found there is not enough support for artists within the community, nor are there enough opportunities for artists to get to know each other.

Though Scott discovered these issues, she did cite some improvements, including that it was important that local businesses have begun showing art. Downtown restaurants such as Cafe Kopi, Aroma and The Great Impasta are all venues for local art as well as dining. Scott stressed that this is important because it helps otherwise shy artists display their work in a public forum.

What this does is get art in front of the people, instills confidence in the artist and people start noticing art in the community, she said.

Carolyn Baxley, owner of the Cinema Gallery in Urbana, agrees with Scott. Baxley said one of the largest problems is that most serious art collectors do not buy their art locally.

“Until that stops, galleries will continue to struggle to be here,” she said.

Though Baxley feels the art business is better in the area, she feels there is room for improvement.

“This is still not a conducive climate for art sales,” she said.

Baxley had wanted to open a gallery for years. She realized her goal with The Cinema Gallery, which has been open for five years and almost exclusively sells local art. Currently, Baxley has pieces from 47 artists; all but six live in the Champaign-Urbana area.

“It always amazed me there was nowhere in Champaign-Urbana where you could see a lot of fine art,” Baxley said.

Baxley feels it is important to have many galleries in the area.

“It’s an outward manifestation of the community,” she said.

Ironically, local artists are better known nationally, Baxley said. One of her goals is to remedy that problem.

“Without art in the community you have a fairly dull community,” she said.

Everyone can appreciate art, Baxley said, and she wants to make it accessible to those who do.

Though the arts community would like to see more support and investment, local businesses and community are starting to take notice.

Jon “Cody” Sokolski, co-owner and developer of One Main, has always believed strongly in the arts and he helped sponsor to bring Florida to Champaign to speak.

Sokolski is the founder of 40 North/88 West and was president until recently. Though mainly a real estate man, his true love is the arts.

The inspiration behind 40 North/88 West, Sokolski says, was to celebrate the arts, culture and entertainment in the eye that it has tremendous value in economic growth. We need to sell fun to keep the university graduates and young people here, Sokolski said.

“There’s a scene here. Just because you don’t find it in four minutes doesn’t mean it isn’t here. You just have to look for it,” he said.

More than ever people are starting to sit up and take notice. They are seeing the tangible effects of the arts in the community and responding.

Lisa Meid, former president of the Champaign Downtown Association and former editor of The Hub, said people have always been interested in the arts in Champaign. It just took time.

When Meid got involved with the Champaign Downtown Association, they started a downtown newsletter. It blew up, she said. In response, they widened the focus of the paper and eventually it grew into what now is The Hub.

Meid now has 9,000 people on her e-mail contact list because of The Hub. The people were the drivers in it, she said.

“It was this weird organic growth,” she said. “It just kind of drove itself.”

Meid says she was not shocked by the demand.

“I grew up here and I know I felt like there wasn’t a lot to do. I always assumed I would leave,” she said, “It makes me happy seeing the community progress as a whole.”

While Champaign City Council Member and Champaign County Economic Development Corporation Board Member Tom Bruno does not believe Florida’s theory is the answer to everything, he does believe in it.

“It helps you to view the world in a different way,” he said.

The creative class does not want to live in a boring town. Thus, Bruno feels it is important to make the town exciting.

It is important we, as a city, do things like encouraging bars to have outdoor seating, let bars stay open until 2 a.m., have outside art and support 40 North/88 West, Bruno said.

“The social scene was something the city had a lot to do with,” he said.

Bruno said it was important that the city did not listen to the critics because the social scene is important. He also believes that all sectors of the community need to help each other.

Joan Dixon, Community Foundation of East Central Illinois Executive Director and member of the Big.Small.All Champaign County Steering Committee, is excited about the growth of the community and believes it should continue.

“Increasingly the economic development and cultural development, as a fallout from the university, has been significant,” she said.

While Dixon is not versed in the theories of Florida, she thinks his ideas are good for the community.

“What I know about it does make sense and would be something we’d want to encourage and foster,” she said.

While Dixon believes artists are important she says other creative members of the community should not be forgotten.

“I think everyone has a role in creating value,” she said.