Downtown or Uptown, the Twin Cities have art everywhere
One hundred artists will set up shop in Uptown Normal this weekend for the 40th annual Sugar Creek Arts Festival. Revered as one of the nation’s top art fairs, Sugar Creek is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to visual arts in Bloomington-Normal.
As part of our ongoing Welcome Home series geared toward the Twin Cities’ newest residents, WGLT visited the Uptown and Downtown arts scenes — plus options beyond and in between the city and the town.
Connecting with artists
Collage artist Janean Baird is a transplant to Bloomington-Normal. She moved here in 1995 and was looking for a way to connect.
“I had to learn how to come downtown,” she said. “I still had a flip phone.”
Baird looked up directions online, printed them out and headed to downtown Bloomington to check out its art galleries. The first place she went was Herb Eaton Studio Gallery at 411 N. Center Street.
“I brought my son, who was 5 years old,” Baird said. “We rang the bell and Herb [Eaton] let us in. It was just the best memory. It was a really special moment.”
Baird first showed her work downtown in 2010 as part of the first “What’s so good about First Friday?” shows organized by Angel Ambrose.
Ambrose owns an independent studio in the Monroe Building at the corner of Main and Monroe streets, where Baird now operates her own studio called Art Vortex.
“I love the space,” she said. “The light is gorgeous there.”
More than 120 artists currently show work in downtown Bloomington, spread out in more than a dozen galleries and studios. On the first Friday of each month, galleries, businesses and restaurants stay open late, often organizing sales and activities around a seasonal theme. Many galleries are also open on the weekends, supplementing a trip to the farmers market or Second Saturday Sidewalk Sales.
“We love seeing families,” said Baird. “It warms our hearts when families come. There was a time I was the young mom bringing my sons when they were growing up.”
Open to the public
The downtown art scene was not always so vibrant. Pamala and Herb Eaton arrived in 1971 from Peoria. Both were transfer students to Illinois State University but quickly immersed themselves downtown.
“I remember the downtown art scene as being pretty much private studios, and most of them were university faculty,” she said.
“We need[ed] to invite the public so we could actually sell work to pay for either the rent or, in our case, the insurance, taxes and utilities, and materials to make the art,” she said.
That was 2000, when the newly formed Around the Corner Artist Group organized its first art walk. The 23rd annual Art Walk is Nov. 3, during First Friday.
More is more
The downtown artists and gallery owners have chosen to work together, seeing collaboration on events like the Art Walk and Slow Art Day as a way to support not just themselves but the art scene as a whole.
“There was a time where the fewer the artists, the bigger the pieces of pie you would get for your art sales,” Eaton said. “Herb and I have the belief that the more pies you have — then you become a destination.”
On a stroll through Museum Square, it’s impossible to ignore a newer addition to the scene: Hangar Art Company.
“For all the artists downtown, we all offer something different,” said Hangar Art Company owner Santino Lamancusa. “More is more. And more is definitely better for everyone downtown.”
Owner Santino Lamancusa is also a transplant; he moved here in 2012 and struggled to find work in his field: film and television production.
“I had to find something else to do with my time,” Lamancusa said. The 25-cent pool table at the Hangar pays homage to his first business venture owning a billiards franchise. And Lamancusa plugged into the art scene by leaning into his passion for photography. His first public showing was at the Jan Brandt Gallery in Normal. Then he got a spot to show and sell prints at Inside Out Accessible Art, an art cooperative located in the Fox and Hound Building at 200 W. Monroe.
“It had gotten to a point where I was looking to start creating bigger things,” said Lamancusa. “Then the pandemic hit. Things just kind of ground to a halt.”
They say, “Go big or go home.” Lamancusa pushed ahead, renting a 4,500 sq. ft. storefront on Museum Square at the height of the pandemic. He knew he couldn’t fill the gallery with just his work.
“The biggest question we had was, do we know enough people who would want to show their art with us?” he said.
The gallery now hosts the work of 25 artists — a mix of locals and out-of-towners who saw an opportunity to not just show but sell their work. The Hangar hosts events and rotates the collection often, so you’re likely to see something new each time you go in. Mostly, Lamancusa wants the Hangar to be a comfortable hangout space where artists and the public can mingle and connect with each other.
“I had no idea if it was going to work, honestly,” he said. “I budgeted enough to at least handle the first term of the lease.”
Nearly three years later, the Hangar Art Co. is thriving as a centerpiece of the downtown art scene.
“For all the artists downtown, we all offer something different,” he said. “More is more. And more is definitely better for everyone downtown.”
After going virtual in 2020, the Sugar Creek Arts Festival — typically held in July — moved its dates back to capitalize on the possibility for cooler temperatures. The juried fine art fair and street festival takes over Uptown Normal, with 100 artists selling their wares, plus live music and festival fare.
“Frankly, one of the big pivot points for a festival like this is that you get to actually meet the artists and get a sense of who they are and carry some of that with you,” said Doug Johnson in an interview with WGLT. Johnson is the executive director of McLean County Arts Center, which puts on the festival.
“A lot of artists have a terrific body of work that you can best understand when you’ve placed it within the context of their larger body of work and other artwork. So, being on site is a fantastic way to get the things that are real about that,” he said.
There is economic benefit to seeing the art in person, too. While the Hangar’s business model recently expanded to a global sales platform with art offered online, Lamancusa reminds patrons that it’s less expensive for Twin City residents, who can shop and pick up art in person, without the cost of shipping and handling.
Just off Uptown Circle on Beaufort Street, the 50-year-old University Galleries will also be open this weekend, with a new show by New York artist Kambui Olujimi.
Like the downtown gallery owners, director and chief curator Kendra Paitz said artists and patrons are floored when they see what Bloomington-Normal and University Galleries have to offer.
“I think we’re really unique,” Paitz said. “We’re a really special entity, not just in the region but nationwide.”
After more than 40 years on the Illinois State University campus at the Center for Visual Arts, University Galleries moved to its current spot in the heart of Normal. That took a lot of partnerships and trust building to achieve and shows buy-in from town officials up to and including the mayor.
“We’re known nationwide for giving artists those first large-scale presentations of their work, their first books about their work. But we don’t just do that," said Paitz. "We try to think of all these different ways to let the work be at the root of larger conversations, workshops and engagements with artists. So, it’s not just about bringing work here. It’s about bringing work that lets us go in all of these different, interdisciplinary directions.”
But wait, there’s more
Art is tucked into nooks and crannies all over the Twin Cities. The 410 Sculpture Park in Bloomington’s warehouse district is a fast-growing, public-facing project led by sculptor and metal worker Tom Kirk, whose background in waste management and excavation are supremely attuned to building an outdoor art paradise.
The Joe McCauley Gallery, located in an out-of-the-way classroom at Heartland Community College, has a rotation of beautiful, thoughtfully curated exhibitions. The McLean County Arts Center has classes in its basement, while above, some of the region’s best artists are featured in solo and group shows. There’s art in the airport. There’s art in the libraries. There’s art at Bobzbay Books, Shake it Up and Under Wraps. The former Salvation Army is now a gallery and printmaking studio. There are murals on underpasses and in Miller Park. Downtown Bloomington’s electrical boxes have become canvases. There is art therapy. Art for kiddos at Illinois Art Station and for seniors at Westminster Village. And the Town of Normal’s new public art working group has earmarked funds for a new sculpture park at One Normal Plaza, with an ambitious plan for murals on the coming underpass in Uptown.
This is not an exhaustive list.
In short, art is everywhere in the Twin Cities — and for everybody. And Pamala Eaton said what’s happening here is sparking conversations among burgeoning art scenes in Pontiac, Lincoln, Lexington and beyond.
“We’re getting a lot of out-of-town people who are new explorers,” she said. “There’s blown away. Many of them say, ‘I never even knew this was in Bloomington, Illinois.’”
The Sugar Creek Arts Festival runs Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. in Uptown Normal. University Galleries, 11 Uptown Circle #103, is open 12-4 p.m. both days. The October First Friday in downtown Bloomington is Oct. 6 from 5-8 p.m. The 23rd annual Art Walk will be held Nov. 3.