Smile Politely

Urbana Public Arts & IMC to create an Open Scene downtown

Following close on the heels of their own Arts Grants announcement, the City of Urbana was keeping the best for last. Urbana Public Arts and the IMC revealed that they have earned a large grant to use youth arts programs to revitalize downtown. Awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the joint proposal called “Open Scene: Debuts of Youth’s Views in Downtown Urbana” has been recommended to receive $50,000 through the Our Town project. This grant could also open a door to a later award from the National Creative Placemaking Fund for up to another $100,000 to renovate and update the IMC.

One of the stipulations of the grant, however, is that the community show its dedication to the plan by raising some funds itself. The goal for this award is a paltry $5,000 which can be pledged to the organization’s GoFundMe. Without the community’s support, this plan might go unrealized.

A joint venture such as this provides a unique opportunity for the culture of downtown Urbana. We’ve seen small improvements creeping into the area, with the arrival of Cafeteria & Co., [co][lab] and the tiny shopping arcade with C-U Adventures in Time and Space, Action Jackson Comics, and See You Records and Vinyl. Just as quickly, however, cornerstone businesses like Art Mart and unique indies like Fleurish and the Urbana branch of Champaign Cycle have decided that downtown Urbana isn’t the best location. I find it telling that entertainment-based art-related ventures are staying and finding support here. Clearly, people who come to downtown Urbana enjoy these types of activities and businesses, so an arts grant at IMC could continue to help make it an inviting destination point.

At a press conference held last Tuesday, many of the grant writers and supporters were present to share their thoughts and goals. Urbana City Council Member Eric Jakobsson spoke to the point that, for the most part, the people deciding the fate of the arts in Urbana are “old guys like [him],” and his thoughts lean toward involving younger voices, since they are the ones who will be enjoying the future of our town. Brandon Boys, Economic Development Manager for the City of Urbana shared similar feelings, saying that the title “Open Scene” was not only to describe the grant, but what he hopes Urbana can turn into, with help and time: something lively, revitalized, and welcoming.

Specific plans for the money are still nebulous, but local artist Latrelle Bright, one of the grant’s primary authors, shared the basic outline. There will be three levels of involvement: community stakeholders, youth participants, and artist mentors. Two of the artists will be local, while the other two will ideally be nationally-known. Together, this team will plan and lead community workshops and create public art that addresses cultural and social questions raised by Urbana’s diverse residents, with a focus on the underserved voices. UCIMC Board member and co-writer of the grant, Danielle Chynoweth stresses that this yearlong venture will actually set up the future of Urbana and the IMC for the next decade or more, putting the voices of the community and youth at the center of an improved arts and media building in the heart of downtown.

Bright broke off the speeches and gave us a demonstration to really drive home the idea. Over 50 people present gathered into a circle to play a round of the icebreaker drama-game “Look Down, Look Up”, pairing off with the first person you happened to make mutual eye contact. These pairs were told to talk about our first memories of making art, then re-converged with a pantomime depiction of these memories. While the pool of participants was heavily skewed with people who actively art, the act of first discussing the experiences and then acting them out was affecting. Instead of just awkwardly volunteering soundbytes about “why art is important”, it evoked the feelings of that first drive to create, and allowed us to relive them.

After that, the speechifying tone of the evening was broken, and the program continued with performances by local artists, some of whom may be considered for participation in the grant. CoCo Harmon delivered a rousing spoken word piece that I enjoyed despite my tendency to dislike poetry slams. Her simple words and confident manner were assertive and tender by turn, and I found her gently eroding the chip on my shoulder. Next up was CJ Run, a transplant from England by way of one of the Carolinas, who actually got the audience to participate in one of her clever raps. I’m sure there were more performances to follow, but I wasn’t able to stay past CJ’s first number, and probably missed out on an even better time.

Even though the details are still fuzzy, and there’s still money left to earn, it’s clear that the organizers of this endeavor are certain that the heart of Urbana is the arts. I think we’ve always known that, but like Jakobsson said, the things we’ve been doing and the people doing them haven’t quite been in tune with what’s to come. Performances and workshops and education may be more effective at drawing a crowd than another sculpture in the sidewalk. I like our sculptures, they’re cool, I pet the mountain lion every time I walk to trivia night at the Secret Bar, but I wouldn’t head out on an evening just to look at it. I’m excited to see what the future holds for a downtown Urbana with artistic events and chances for full-community participation, and congratulations to the team that secured this amazing opportunity.

About Rebecca Knaur…

As Arts Editor for Smile Politely, rk has a habit of going to too many events and writing too many thoughts while under the influence of mind-altering beverages. She’s writing so many articles these days that her Twitter account is languishing, but follow if you must. 

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