What follows here is more love letter than preview. As Smile Politely's arts editor, I am part curator, part critic, and occasionally, part philosopher. But at heart I am a fan of the arts in general and our local arts community in particular. Getting emotionally invested is an occupational hazard I happily embrace. Consider yourselves forewarned. 

40 North is the Miracle-Gro to the soil of our arts scene. It fuels and nourishes. It sustains. It creates opportunities for art to grow where it had never before. Public buses, billboards, art festivals, and the halls and walls of many public and corporate places and spaces. Forgive the gardening metaphor, it may be counter to the season but it holds true nonetheless.  Artists, like all organic life forms, need food, water, and, light. And the ACE Awards Celebration provides that light, not only on this year's worthy winners, but on the important roles they play in the larger ecosystem. 

And as the broad range of award categories illustrates, it takes a village for art to thrive. It takes inspired and inspiring educators, dedicated and talented volunteers, exceptional students, local business owners who partner with local artists and strive to support and understand their needs and goals. 2019 marks the 15th year of this celebration. A few minutes spent on the 40 North website's list of previous winners will testify to the depth and breadth of our local arts scene. 


Above are the faces of this year's winners. They are an extraordinarily diverse and vibrant group with one important thing in common: they have made Champaign-Urbana a better place. A better place for students, aspiring artists, and arts lovers of all stripes. The fact that I know only several of them speaks to the fact that CU's arts bench is deeper than we realize. 

From left to right, and in the words of Kelly White, 40 North's Executive Director, they are: 

Lifetime ACE Award – Bea Nettles, for her technically innovative, transformative, and experimental work that has extensively contributed to the history of photography, for her international reputation and huge impact on generations of students at the University of Illinois, and for making an immeasurable contribution to the artistic community of Champaign County while remaining a national treasure.

Teacher ACE Award – John Currey, for embodying the best qualities of humanity in his teaching and bringing out the best in young musicians, for his passion and commitment to music education and creating a band room full of hope, creativity, and innovation, and for lobbying and advocating at the state and national level for equal access to music education initiatives.

Student ACE Award – Keenan Dailey, for creating multifaceted, impressive, and thought-provoking work that speaks to a variety of viewers on themes of afro-futurism, social justice, and black activism, and for his continuing efforts, influence, and willingness to participate and contribute to our community as a whole.

Artist ACE Award – EKAH, for creating exceptional work that captures emotion, imagination, and whimsy at a magical level and captivates an audience of all ages and backgrounds, for her sincere support and genuine enthusiasm for other artists in this area, and for contributing immense value to this arts community through multiple collaborations with local schools and organizations.

Business ACE Award – Dixon Graphics, for spreading positivity with character and integrity and maintaining a focus on local artists, small businesses, and non-profit organizations, for going out of their way to support, advocate for, advise, encourage, and promote local artists as they conduct their art businesses, and for regularly dedicating one entire wall of their storefront to art display.

Advocate ACE Award – Jason Finkelman, for consistently advocating for, creating, and nurturing remarkable partnerships and collaborations between multiple institutions, organizations, programs, and local, national, and international artists, as well as tirelessly supporting, presenting, and promoting our cultural community to audiences across all boundaries with passion, conviction, and creativity. 

Volunteer ACE Award – Susan Curtis, for designing and sewing countless costumes for several local theater productions, for her creativity, commitment, and dedication to theater production at an unprecedented scale, and for her overall passion and tireless support of theater in this community.

The ACE Awards is my version of the NCAA Championship. Out of a list of 85 nominees (talk about a deep arts bench), we celebrate these seven humans, and the community that is brighter and richer because of them. Join them on Friday night to learn more about them, to congratulate them, be inspired by them, and thank them.  

And a party is it will be. They'll be yummy appetizers from Michaels, adult beveages (cash bar) to get you in mood, and they're be speeches and tributes, some of which will continue to inspire you long after. You'll also enjoy music by Crash Events DJ and a special performance from Zondo.

I'm proud to say that last year's ACE Awards Celebration was one of my first events as Smile Politely's newly minted arts editor. Kelly White made me cry. Peg Shaw made me laugh and cry. It was a rallying cry for support of the arts and their necessity for CU's growth and development, for the development and well-being of our children, and the healing of our souls in challenging times. That night set the tone for my work here. And if you are an artist, a parent of an artist or in any-way arts adjacent, I hope you will stop by, meet and become part of this community, and come away with a plan for how you can make your mark on it. 

40 North ACE Awards Celebration
The City Center
503 S. Chestnut St., Champaign
November 8th, 5:30 to 8 p.m.
Get tickets online ($10 in advance, $15 at the door)

Photos from the 40 North website