There’s no question that Champaign-Urbana’s arts community has proven to thrive under any circumstances. We’re extremely lucky to have local people and governments that continue to recognize the value that art brings to our lives. And while we’re facing very real consequences from the state government – slowly being stripped of resources that meet the basic needs of our least-fortunate citizens – I’d ask you to remember that art isn’t just luxury or “enrichment”: art also has concrete worth, especially to people who are suffering.
To that end, as you read through this list of my opinions about what constitutes “best”, know that none of this art just spontaneously happened. These efforts are the result of thousands of volunteer hours, grant dollars, and personal (emotional and financial) investment. If you saw any of these productions or exhibitions and felt enriched by them, please consider donating to their continued efforts. If you disagree with me and think something else was better, please consider donating to the efforts of what you feel should have won.
Oh and please, feel free to declare your feelings in the comments — maybe it will inspire others to action, too. — Rebecca Knaur
BEST use of momentum
Latrelle Bright has been paying her dues in the local theatre scene since parting ways with Inner Voices Social Issues Theatre, and this year she truly took off. Bright has always been interested in telling all kinds of stories with all kinds of people, and once told me in an interview that what’s missing from this community’s theatre is the locally-written, self-produced, original play. Since summer of 2016, she has directed Dreamgirls at KCPA, a beloved children’s musical at Parkland, a social-justice drama at the Station, and wrapped up by staging her own production at the IMC, The Water Project. Her perseverance is an asset to this community, and I sure hope she keeps it going. (RK)
BEST new sculpture
Humpty Dumpty at Esquire
Give the Public Art League credit: they don’t always hit the mark — I want to vandalize and do bad things to that jester in front of Seven Saints — but when they do, they do it memorably.
People have been talking about the Humpty Dumpty sculpture since it was erected in front of Esquire in the heart of Downtown Champaign in October, and for good reason. It’s gaudy. It’s out of place. It’s a character that literally almost everyone knows. It’s absurd, and child-like, and in the end, a total mess.
But it has people talking. And in a campus community that seems to place very little on the value of public art, I tip my hat to the people that made this happen at Public Art League. It was a bold choice, and that is more than I can say about most anything in that department around here.
Also, dude is totally baked. A tell tale sign of things to come. Good news. (SF)
BEST rising filmmaker
Charlie Kessler has been on my radar since Pens to Lens 2015, where he directed a quirky script called Just Another Day at the Station. I found out he’d been interning at Shatterglass Studios and helping with a few bigger local films. In 2016, his presence at the fest was on both sides of the camera, acting in The Star Prince and directing the audience-favorite Lance Lawson: the Case of the Misplaced Politician. He took the latter to the Illinifest Student International Film Festival and cleaned up (or cluttered up?) by taking home the “Audience Award”, “Best Cinematography Midwest Student”, and “Illini Student Award” which proves I'm not the only one to recognize his talent. He’s pictured here with John Isberg, who was cinematographer for the film, but we already know he’s amazing. (psst, I think that also makes Lance Lawson the BEST local film short) (RK)
BEST set design
Failure, a love story (Evan Park)
Every time I walk into the Studio Theatre at Krannert and there is something suspended from the ceiling, I’m in awe. Then I remember, “Oh yeah, they do that a lot,” because honestly, they do. This year it was part of the design for both Dontrell and Failure. But the Failure design was truly next-level: it was functional, it was beautiful, it was mind-blowing. You knew it was a clock. You knew it had exploded. It took most of the show to get to the point where the pendulum swayed and the clock hands moved and everything – everything – paid off. This is the first time in my theatergoing life when I felt compelled to sit in a specific seat because I wanted to be closer to a piece of scenery. And to be fair, the puppets were also amazing — I still cry for the snake — but it was the clock that I wanted to be near. Evan Park designed the set, and to everyone who worked on crafting it, congratulations, and keep it up. (RK)
BEST classical music performance you’d expect to only see in a big city
Black Violin & Lang Lang (TIE)
OK, yes, absolutely without any doubt, Lang Lang is the biggest BFD pianist right now. I can’t even tell you how fast the tickets to his performance sold out. But just a few days before Black Violin showed up here, they were featured on NPR, and had a few videos making the rounds. A friend posted, “Why can’t we get something like that in this town?” and I was able to make her day. I was leaving the show of Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea when Black Violin let out and so many people were energized, excited, and exclaiming about the performance. While their popularity is growing, it’s still the kind of act you expect to see in a mid-capacity venue in a big city, but we got them here. And Lang Lang, because he’s selling out the best concert halls in the largest cities. So there’s that. (RK)
BEST news for local filmmakers, film-goers, and cinema stewards
The Art Theater Co-op merges with Art Film Foundation
I admit, I loved the idea of having the nation’s first (and only) co-operatively owned theatre. As I learned a few years back, however, it just wasn’t a sustainable business plan for the entertainment sector, and it hemmed in the theatre in a few ways that ultimately would not provide us with what we as a community want: a cool place to watch unique films and have amazing events. At the end of the day, the Art is a resource that keeps Champaign interesting and gives us a reason other than booze to stay downtown and spend money. Keeping it open is paramount to having Champaign live up to our ideal of it, so whatever works to that end is clearly the best option. I applaud the board and owners for finding a solution that maintains a functioning art-house cinema in our city. (RK)
BEST fresh blood
Casey Ludwig — Ebertfest
Ebertfest is nearing the two decade mark in its history, which is remarkable in and of itself. With that kind of milestone comes a certain amount of obstacles, of course. Though, the challenge isn't necessarily keeping those around that are always going to attend Ebertfest — the festival is adored by plenty, and those patrons will continue to buy tickets regardless of the lineup and guest slate. The real challenge comes with appealing to a new audience in a new era of media consumption — you know, the idea of consuming a film outside of your own home is foreign to many in this era of Netflix and Hulu and everything else you can buy for $10 a month.
A film festival can, without a doubt, reach the millenial generation. It just has to be done in the right way, with the right ideas. Ebertfest has the foundation to take risks, thankfully.
All that said, Casey Ludwig, the Assistant Director of Ebertfest, is the conduit to that fresh generation in many ways — younger mindset, new ideas, fresh perspective, and more — all important things when it comes to producing a festival that is going to enter decade three soon. It is easy to reproduce the model, sure — but her work in this particular space is vital to the continuation of the fest. There's no question that Chaz Ebert continues to bring a certain attitude and excitement to things as the face of the festival in a lot of ways, but Ludwig's work will continue to shape the way this event functions for quite some time. (PS)
BEST way to keep art-lovers engaged all year
Unreliable Bestiary — BEAR
Deke Weaver mused to me via email that he sometimes questioned why he made BEAR a three-part performance, but looking back over the past year as a participant, it was incredible to take part in each season. Fall’s interactive hike wasn’t too out of character for previous Bestiary entries, but Winter’s geocaching adventure was a great motivator during the cold months. It was especially rewarding to find my way to a library (!) for a rare-books viewing and sharing some (perhaps too) personal artifacts. Springtime’s feast was back to an anticipatable Bestiary performance, but was a rewarding way to wrap the whole thing up (and there was wine). Although I can’t imagine the amount of effort it took to execute, it was definitely a highlight of the year — all year long. (RK)
BEST advocate for the Arts
Kelly White — 40 North
You have to hand it to Kelly White. The woman is a dynamo. Her organization is so wildly underfunded, you’d think she was running a goddamned soup kitchen. Yet, everywhere you look, her work is present. On billboards, lingering over the city’s traffic. On buses you are trailing on your way to work. In schools, as your children learn. In museums, in coffee shops, in bars, in venues, at Boneyard Arts Festival, which carries a budget of just $16K. Sixteen thousand dollars. To run an entire weekend event devoted to the visual arts primarily. That’s about what a local spends going between his other homes and Champaign just once, dozens of times a year.
Yeah, that’s a fact, don’t kid yourself.
So, here’s the news: Kelly White deserves your respect and attention. Every day. Each year, she and her board award someone else in the community an ACE Advocate Award, and deserving they are, no question.
But is there anyone in town more deserving than Kelly herself? The answer is no. Don’t argue with me. You will lose. (SF)
BEST literary event
Literary Death Match at Pygmalion
When the zoot-suited emcee (Zuniga) slid onto the stage and started quipping about how drunk Hemingway was (and that we should emulate the writer, at least during the event), my FOMO about the bands outside disappeared. I love reading, I love books, and to be very honest, I generally hate hearing things being read aloud to me. There are a few exceptions, and I usually find them at Pygmalion – Adrian Matejka was definitely a highlight of 2015. Literary Death Match was almost everything I wanted it to be; part game-show, part judging-talent reality show, mostly hilarious. If it comes back, I would want some quippier judges although Neil Steinberg was 5/8 funny and 3/8 serious. Still, it was a great time spent, I’m sad Lindsey Gates-Markel didn’t win, and I’m sure I’ll have another chance to see Prince Rama. Like most things Pyg-brand, it gave me an experience I wouldn’t normally get to have. (RK)
The Quintessential Engineer
You might see this BEST category and think, "wait, but Humpty Dumpty took this one already!" Not so fast, just read further, because this is a bit more about the message than it is about the materials that made it.
Brains lead to making great art. Everyone has a different brain, and they are capable of so many different things. Recognition that all brains should be treated equal is personified in this statue that now resides on the Engineering Quad at the University of Illinois — home to what continues to be an absolutely mindnumbing amount of genius brains.
This statue was created by an artist, and while that artist doesn't reside here, that's totally OK because this BEST category isn't for the sculptor (though, very talented of course) — it is for what the statue stands for in a lot of ways. Now more than ever, these are the little reminders that we need to move in the right direction. In a way, sciences and technology are pieces of art and help change the way artists work each and every day. (PS)
BEST all-day art event
8 to Create
A writer covered 8 to Create in 2016 and I ran the article and put it on the calendar for 2017, and was mildly upset that I had to work during the event. This year, I was able to go and walk through the event at several points during the day (I live near downtown Urbana). While not every work or medium was to my aesthetic, it was intriguing to get to see artists occupying a gallery space and actively creating. Some were interactive with the crowd, grabbing models from the attendees, others were very focused on their internal visions. I was afraid it might feel like an “art fair” but because the space was inside, the artists could work on enormous canvases and not worry about what might happen to their utensils or surfaces, so it felt much more formal. It was great to see the works change throughout the day, and I even went back with the intention to hear the gallery talk. Un/Fortunately, the space was packed for the talk and we didn’t fit inside to be able to hear. So amazing event… but maybe a larger space next time. (RK)
BEST locally-written book
Kindred adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings
When he gave a talk at the library, Damian Duffy observed that J2D2 may have broken the NYTimes Graphic Novel Bestsellers list, because their book was the last title to hit #1. After that, the list was discontinued, which means that when you google “NY Times Bestselling Graphic Novel”, theirs is always the first book you’ll see. While not every book by a local author comes across the SP desk*, Kindred was definitely the highest-quality, most beautifully-told story we reviewed this year; it is the book I made the decision to purchase on my own steam. Not only is this team bringing national attention to necessary issues at a time when it’s relevant, they’re also helping new generations and demographics re-discover Butler’s original work. It was a worthwhile effort gorgeously realized. (RK)
BEST showcases of young talent
MFA exhibition at Krannert Art Museum and Graphic Design Student Juried show at Parkland's Giertz Gallery — TIE
There is just an absolute wealth of talent here in Champaign-Urbana's art scene, and one component that develops artists somehow seems to be under the radar to the layman like me — students at Parkland and U of I. The MFA exhibition at Krannert Art Museum meshes the best of what the graduates of the Art + Design school have to offer, while Parkland's student design show gets just as creative and exploratory. These showcases of brilliant young minds should be focused on far more than they are at this point in time, because ultimately we should be persuant to get these artists to stick around and keep slugging it out. (PS)
Brian Hagy & Prompting Theatre, finalists in the 2017 Easterseals Disability Film Challenge “Awareness Campaign”
A few weeks back, SP responded slightly late to the Prompting Theatre’s press release. Brian Hagy was hoping to get the word out about his team’s film Family Time, and they only had a few weeks to do it. Through social media and news outlets alike, the acting troupe needed people to “like” and watch their youtube video in order to possibly win the “Awareness Campaign” category in a filmmaking contest required to blend the talents of a team of professionals with and without disabilities. Our community resoundingly responded, and got the film into a Finalist slot in the competition. That means huge numbers of people connected throughout C-U and beyond saw an excellent example of what can be accomplished when people work together. And if that’s not BEST, I don’t know what is. (RK)
Contributors to this article include Rebecca Knaur, Seth Fein, and Patrick Singer.