ACE Awards celebrate arts-minded community members

By Mariah Schaefer

Since 2005, 40 North | 88 West, Champaign County’s arts council, opens up nominations for the ACE Awards, selecting the winners and celebrating with the arts community.

This year, the 11th annual awards ceremony is on Friday at The City Center inside Fat City Bar and Grill in Champaign.

Community members who impact the local arts scene are recognized, but the ceremony exists more to bring together arts-minded community members. The acronym stands for art, culture and education.

Kelly White, executive director at 40 North | 88 West, said the ACE Awards are not a competition.

“It’s not a typical awards ceremony … it’s basically a party, a full celebration of everyone who is involved with the arts community,” said Kelly White, executive director at 40 North | 88 West. “It’s just a way for us to kind of sit back, celebrate and shine a light on that.”

The ACE Awards have seven categories: advocate, artist, volunteer, business, teacher, student and lifetime. White said that the number of nominations increases from year to year. This year, council received over 110 nominations for the community-based panel of judges to decide on the winners.

“It is tough … Every year the judges struggle with each category, and every year they always ask, ‘Can we give more than one to each category?’ because there is such a competitive base of amazing people,” White said.

White also said that because of the high competition, the council honors all nominees at the event as well.

“The seven winners are fantastic, and it’s great to honor them, but truly the whole group of all of them combined is what is really making the arts community happen,” White said. “It’s all those people that are nominated for different reasons that really as a group, as a whole are what is kind of creating the vibrancy that we have.”

Xuxa Rodriguez, student ACE

When she was just five years old, Susana (Xuxa) Rodriguez’s grandmother decided to sit her down and teach her how to oil paint.

“Evidently, she had a lot of faith in me, because five-year-olds and oil painting don’t really mix in my mind,” said Rodriguez, a third year Ph.D. candidate in Art History. “The amount of patience that you have to have for oil painting is one that I do not normally associate with five-year-olds, but she was like, this one is precocious and she has laser focus, so this one will probably be able to do it, and she was right.”

Rodriguez, who is a Graduate College distinguished fellow, focuses her studies on contemporary Afro-Cuban performance artists and looks at how they negotiate the plural identity of being Cuban-American.

“I am kind of biased because I am Cuban-American,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez worked at Figure One, the School of Art and Design’s exhibition laboratory space, from around October 2013 until this past summer, and she thinks her duties there influenced her nomination for an ACE Award.

“I helped curate shows; I helped curate programs,” Rodriguez said. “I was very vocal and visible in the community … I would go out and basically go to everyone’s shows – I still go to everyone’s shows as much as I can – but always go and sort of engage in cultural exchange.”

She said that when she found out she had won the Student ACE, it was the “weirdest, coolest thing ever” because she was not expecting it, and she was surprised that she received multiple nominations.

“It was really awesome,” Rodriguez said.

Rusty Clevenger, teacher ACE

Rusty Clevenger grew up in a small farm community in Illinois near St. Louis, so the first time he went to an art museum was when he was a high school sophomore.

Clevenger, elementary art teacher at Dr. Preston L. Williams Jr. Elementary School and Wiley Elementary School, moved to Urbana in 2009 to teach and immediately noticed Champaign-Urbana’s connection to the arts.

“I started to realize how much arts were in the community, but then I was also realizing that none of the kids were going to any of those places,” he said.

He said that close to 92 percent of the student body at Dr. Williams, and about half of the student body at Wiley, comes from low-income families and qualify for free and reduced lunches.

“I started realizing how many of my students had never seen real art or stood in front of it or attended a performance,” Clevenger said. “So I started to look for ways to get my students to those spaces.”

He and a group of about five or six teachers started collaborating with Krannert Art Museum, where students were able to go to the art museum for an entire week.

“With that week there, we were going to teach all the curriculum lessons using arts integration,” Clevenger said. “Basically, the students learned reading, writing, math, art, music, dance and drama all by looking at artifacts at the Krannert Art Museum.”

Now in its fifth year, the program has two categories: KAM-WAM, where students go to the museum for a week, and KAM-BAM, where students go to the museum for a day.

Clevenger said that winning the teacher ACE means a lot to him because the community picked it.

“I became very passionate with teaching very early in my career, and I also became very passionate with the fine arts,” Clevenger said. “For me, it almost feels like this adventure where I am still exploring and still going, and it wasn’t until the award kind of came up where I kind of had to take a moment and be like, wow, people are really liking this.”

Carolyn Baxley, advocate ACE

Carolyn Baxley, owner of the Cinema Gallery in Urbana, said she thinks it is important to support local galleries and artists. Her gallery alone represents over 50 artists.

“I am really happy to have won in that particular category because I think that anyone who is involved in the arts needs to be an advocate,” Baxley said. “We need to support each other.”

Baxley said that three galleries closed in the area in the past year.

“It’s been a very difficult time,” she said. “I have been very fortunate to survive it, and it’s important that people remember in times like this that … they need to come out and support the artists and the art, otherwise they go away.”

She said she views one of her roles as a business owner as working with other business owners to ensure visibility for the area.

“I think people really underestimate the need for staying visible, for marketing their businesses,” Baxley said. “Our community is very transitional. We have students who are here four years, some who are here for fewer years and we can’t expect people to always remember that we are here.”

Baxley has lived in Urbana since 1973. She went to graduate school at the University, met her husband, got married and ended up staying after finishing her degree.

“My husband and I have been interested in historic preservation for a number of years,” Baxley said. “We’ve renovated several buildings in downtown Urbana, including the one that houses the gallery, the historic cinema.”

She also helped found the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum in the 1990s.

“You have to really be supportive of other arts venues and other art efforts in town, and I’ve tried to do that over the years,” Baxley said. “I try to attend openings at other galleries.”

Baxley said she has been to the ACE Awards celebrations every year, has been nominated before and would go to the event even if she were not nominated.

“Socializing with other arts-minded individuals I would say is one of the benefits of the ceremony,” she said.

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