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Friday, August 14, 2009

Rocco Landesman to visit Peoria

Posted By on 08.14.09 at 05:26 PM

Earlier this week, I borrowed an old vaudeville expression to ask whether newly installed National Endowment for the Arts chair Rocco Landesman "will play in Peoria." Apparently he's going to try. On Tuesday, August 11—his first day on the job—Landesman contacted Kathy Chitwood, executive director of the Eastlight Theatre in East Peoria, responding to her invitation to him to see her company's production of Rent, which closes this weekend.

I made my comment while blogging about a comment Landesman, a veteran Broadway producer, made in a New York Times interview. "I don’t know if there's a theater in Peoria, but I would bet that it's not as good as Steppenwolf or the Goodman," Landesman told the Times. Landesman's comment struck me as ill-advised—the kind of thing that can foster an elitist image and provide ammunition for critics of arts funding, especially in the present highly charged, highly partisan political climate.

"When I read what he'd said, my first reaction was WHAT?!, with lots of exclamation points," Chitwood told me. "I called the executive directors of the Illinois Arts Council and the Illinois Arts Alliiance. We talked about this, and after they'd calmed me down, I realized this is a teachable moment. So I sent him an e-mail inviting him to come see what we're doing here. When he called me on Tuesday, he was very gracious. He explained that since this was his first week on the job he wouldn't be able to get to Peoria this weekend. But he says he does intend to come visit us, and we're working that out now. I just talked to his chief of staff, and she said as soon as they have a date open on the calendar they'll let us know." Working with Chitwood on the Landesman education initiative is Suzette Boulais, executive director of ArtsPartners of Central Illinois, a consortium of arts organizations in the region.

Writing on the Reader's Onstage blog, Chitwood elaborated: "Our goal is for Peoria to represent all of the smaller communities in the nation that are doing worthy and worthwhile work in the arts. In homage to 'The Beer Summit,' we are lovingly calling this visit, 'The Lemonade Stand' . . . not because that is what we drink, but because that is what we do in Peoria—we take lemons and turn them into lemonade."

Chitwood is very proud of Eastlight, an amateur company with only two paid staffers—herself and technical director Steve Cordle. "Eastlight was created in 1992 through an . . . agreement between the city of East Peoria, Fondulac Park District, and East Peoria High School. This wasn't just a bunch of people who wanted to do theater getting together—it was a community coming together to say, 'We want a theater here.'"

I haven't seen Eastlight's work, but it sounds like exactly the kind of company the NEA was established to help. The sometimes controversial agency was created in 1965, in large part through the efforts of U.S. Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Illinois), who represented Chicago's north lakefront and the North Shore suburbs in Congress for almost 50 years. The NEA's mandate is to stimulate a regional arts, not merely to reward the best artists in cultural capitals like Chicago and New York. It plays an important role in stimulating state and regional arts funding by organizations such as the Illinois Arts Council.

"Most of the theaters at our level don't get direct NEA funding," says Chitwood, who sits on the IAC's theater panel. "We don't have the kind of staff you need to write an NEA grant or to raise the matching funds NEA grants often require. Our money comes mainly from the Illinois Arts Council, which gets some of its funding from the NEA." With state arts funding on the chopping block in a bad economy, Chitwood's concerned that arts education and community arts organizations will wither unless the NEA takes a role. "Look our way, Rocco," she says, anticipating the chance to bend the NEA VIP's ear. "Not just at me, or at Peoria, but look our way—the community-based arts world. We're really, really hurting."

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