Arts and Culture in Illinois
By virtue of its being the third-largest city in America, Chicago plays a dominant role in the cultural life of Illinois. Whether your interests lie in symphony orchestras, opera, dance, theater and live popular music, or museums and cinema, Chicago has a wealth of choices that are available on a year-round basis. In addition, there are yearly festivals dedicated to all of these art forms and more that add to the city’s cultural stew.
Informing all of these artistic offerings is a diverse mix of people, a result of the many waves of immigrants from other parts of the nation as well as other countries that have made their way to Chicago over the decades. The same can be said for Illinois in general, and today there is a remarkable range of arts activity in both the smaller cities as well as the more rural areas of the Prairie State.
Illinois is home to nine symphony orchestras, led by the world-renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), which offers more than 150 performances a year and has garnered 60 Grammy Awards for its recordings over the years. Also in the city are the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, which is affiliated with the CSO and is the only remaining training orchestra in the U.S., the Chicago Sinfonietta, and the Grant Park Orchestra, which offers free performances in Millennium Park during the summer. Elsewhere in the state are the Illinois Philharmonic in Park Forest, the Champaign–Urbana Symphony Orchestra, the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra, and the Rockford Symphony Orchestra.
Opera enthusiasts have a nice variety of companies to choose from, with all but one being located in Chicago. The Lyric Opera of Chicago presents both standard works (its 2005 production of Wagner’s monumental 16-hour Ring cycle was a recent triumph) and contemporary productions by the likes of John Adams, Kurt Weill, and John Harbison. The South Shore Opera Company was created last year to put the focus on local African-American talent, and the Chicago Opera Vanguard trains its focus on new operas.
Also available in the city are the Chicago Opera Theater, Opera Cabal, Da Corneto Opera, theChicago Folks Opera and the Chamber Opera Chicago. The Prairie State’s only professional opera company outside of Chicago is Opera Illinois, which is located in Peoria and draws singers from around the country and the world.
Ballet in Illinois is represented by The Joffrey Ballet, which was established in 1956 and has made Chicago its home since 1995. Over the years the company has grown from six dancers to 46, and is well known for its original dance pieces as well as its Christmas production of the Nutcracker.
Peoria hosts the Illinois Ballet, which works to promote a greater awareness of dance among the state’s southern citizens. The Illinois Ballet also has a school, which supplies the company with many of its dancers.
There are more than 233 museums in Illinois, and they run the gamut from institutions devoted to the general categories of art, history, and science, to those focused on more specific endeavors, such as the Chester Gould–Dick Tracy Museum in Woodstock, the Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum in Rockford, and the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago.
There are 30 other museums in Chicago, including perennial favorites such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Field Museum of Natural History. TheAdler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum offers an opportunity to explore the solar system and beyond, and the Museum of Contemporary Photography has more than 6,000 snapshots taken since 1945 by American and U.S.-resident photographers.
Elsewhere around the state, train enthusiasts can get their fill at the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, and baby boomers can relive their youth at the 1950s Park Forest House Museum in Park Forest, which bills itself as the first fully-planned, post-World War II suburb. Presidential history buffs have two choices: the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, and theUlysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site in Galena, whose citizens presented Grant with a furnished house after he returned following the end of the Civil War.
Illinois has made a significant contribution to popular music, perhaps most famously through the development of the Chicago Blues. The migration of African Americans from the South into urban areas of the North during and after World War II included such Delta blues musicians as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, and Little Walter. These blues greats all landed in Chicago, and eventually switched to amplified instruments to be better heard in the clubs they were playing. By the 1950s, they were recording their blues songs and laying the foundation for rock ’n’ roll at studios like Cobra, Vee-Jay, and Chess, which has now been turned into a museum. Seminal rock ’n’ rollersChuck Berry and Bo Diddley also recorded in these Chicago studios during those years. Today the blues scene remains strong, and every June the Chicago Blues Festival—the largest free blues festival in the world—welcomes hundreds of thousands of fans to the city.
Jazz is another style that has seen Illinois musicians making major contributions throughout its history. The early decades of the twentieth century saw this then-new form of music shift from its birthplace in New Orleans up to Chicago when originators like Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton made the move north. Prominent Illinois natives who made vital contributions to jazz includeMiles Davis, Benny Goodman, and Herbie Hancock.
Illinois has also had its fair share of rock ’n’ roll musicians who have found national success, including the Buckinghams, who had a number one hit in February 1967 with "Kind Of A Drag" and went on to place four more songs in the Top 20 that year. Chicago native James Guercio produced all but the first of those records, and the next year he did the same for the debut album by a band he rechristened theChicago Transit Authority. Later shortened to Chicago, the band found great commercial success starting in the early 1970s. A band that found similar success later in the decade was Cheap Trick, which hails from Rockford and is still going strong today.
In country music, Champaign native Alison Krauss has been an integral part of the modern bluegrass scene for more than 20 years, and Gretchen Wilson, who was born in the tiny town of Pocahontas, has had several top ten country hits in the past decade.
THEATER AND PERFORMING ARTS
There is a wealth of theater companies located throughout Illinois, but Chicago, with more than 200 located within the city, easily has the highest concentration in the state. Over the decades some of these companies have gained national renown for the consistent quality and expertise of their productions. Chief among them are the Goodman Theatre, which first introduced the work of playwright David Mamet; the Steppenwolf Theatre, which has helped launch the careers of many prominent American actors, including Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, and Joan Allen; and Second City, which has proven to be the training ground for the cream of film and television comedians since it first opened in 1959.
Chicago is also a main stop for touring productions of Broadway shows as well as productions eventually destined to play the Great White Way. Two prominent Illinois natives who achieved great success on Broadway are Bob Fosse and Gower Champion; both were multi-talented performers who started as dancers before moving on to choreography and directing for such classic shows as Hello, Dolly!, Bye Bye Birdie, 42nd Street, Sweet Charity, Pippin, and Chicago.
Elsewhere in the state, the Champaign–Urbana Theatre Company (CUTC) puts on its varied productions in the historic Virginia Theater, much as it has since 1911. In addition to the four shows it mounts every year, the CUTC works on joint productions with other community organizations and provides educational opportunities in theater arts. The Woodstock Musical Theatre Company is a not-for-profit operation that puts on a yearly schedule of shows in the city’s Opera House, which dates back to 1890. And for fans of the Bard of Avon, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival produces a full season of shows every year in conjunction with Illinois State University. The productions are staged in an Elizabethan-style theater on the university campus in Normal.
The history of cinema in Illinois goes back to the earliest days of silent pictures. Chicago was a major stop on the vaudeville circuit, and a good many early movies were basically filmed versions of acts that originally appeared on stage, including such well-received bits about trained animals. Working at different level of sophistication, Essanay Studios was founded in 1907 and made silent films for the next decade, working with film luminaries of the period like Charlie Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Tom Mix, and Wallace Beery.
After the film industry moved to Hollywood in the 1920s, Illinois didn’t get back into the "picture business" until outdoor location shooting began to grow in the 1950s. Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) was one of the first that featured scenes of Chicago, and the city has since appeared in numerous films. Some notable examples include the action/comedy/musical The Blues Brothers(1980), the true crime drama The Untouchables (1987), the semi-fictionalized account of women’s professional baseball in A League of Their Own (1992), the music-geek romance High Fidelity(2000) and the family comedy Christmas story Home Alone (1990).
Other locations around Illinois have also had their moment(s) up on the silver screen, including Woodstock, where portions of Groundhog Day (1993) were shot; Des Plaines and Northbrook, which both stood in for the fictional town of Shermer in the teen drama The Breakfast Club (1985); Evanston, which provided some of the settings for the crime drama Road to Perdition (2002); and Wilmette, where some scenes from the family drama Ordinary People (1980) were filmed.
Illinois also is home to a wide variety of annual film festivals, led by the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF), which each October screens more than 100 films submitted by filmmakers from around the world. Young artists get an opportunity to have their work seen each June at the Future Filmmakers Festival, which is associated with the CIFF and only accepts work from artists who are not yet 20 years old. The diverse ethnic quilt that is Chicago makes a fine home for a number of specialized events, including the Chicago Latino Film Festival, the Chicago Palestine Film Festival, and the Chicago Irish Film Festival.
Every April the Virginia Theatre in Champaign–Urbana plays host to Ebertfest, which is the film critic Roger Ebert’s annual film festival. He chooses all of the movies on the program, and bases his selections on their quality combined with what he believes to be a lack of recognition by the general public. His choices range from the silent era right up to the present. Another festival of note is the Big Muddy Film Festival, which is organized by students at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and sponsored by the Illinois Arts Council. The Big Muddy supports the work of both emerging and accomplished filmmakers, and screens works in four categories: documentary, experimental, narrative and animation.
There is a lengthy list of authors with ties to Illinois, some by virtue of having been born or living there, and others who used the state as a setting for some of their best-known work. The names range from L. Frank Baum, who was living in Chicago when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900; to Richard Wright, who lived in Chicago for about a decade and used the city as the setting for his novel Native Son. Other famous Illinois authors include Upton Sinclair, whose 1904 stay in Chicago led to The Jungle, which helped bring about needed changes in the city’s slaughterhouses; and Carl Sandburg, an Illinois native who was the state’s poet laureate from 1962 until his death in 1967 and won two Pulitzer Prizes—one for his poetry and the other for his biography of Abraham Lincoln.
Chicago was also home to a couple of well-known playwrights—Ben Hecht, who worked as a newspaper journalist in the city from 1910 to 1924 and turned his experiences into The Front Page; and Lorraine Hansbury, who was born in Chicago and whose play, A Raisin in the Sun, was set there. This was the first work by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. Mention must also be made of Louis (Studs) Terkel, who lived in Chicago from the age of eight until his death at 96 in 2008. A radio and TV broadcaster as well as an author, Terkel captured the essence of Illinois as well as America in his many books composed from tape recordings he made with ordinary citizens.
A yearly event of note takes place in Springfield every November, when for three days, the Illinois Authors Book Fair offers readings, book discussions, workshops, and speeches featuring many of the state’s prominent authors. Back in Chicago, another celebration for literature lovers is the annualChicago Book Festival in October; a particular highlight is the One Book, One Chicago program, which encourages both residents and visitors to read its single selection and then participate in the discussions, readings, and events that are tied to that book. And not to be overlooked is the Poetry Center of Chicago, which hosts a series of readings featuring poets from around the country.
The Chicago Imagists is the name given a group of representational artists who achieved a certain amount of recognition through their work, which was first exhibited at the Hyde Park Art Center in the late 1960s. They were associated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and included among their ranks Roger Brown, Barbara Rossi, Phil Hanson, and Ed Paschke. Their work was notorious for its surreal and grotesque elements, as well as a total lack of involvement with the New York art scene of the time.
A couple of other prominent Illinois artists are Judy Chicago and Bernard Fuchs. Chicago, who took her last name from the city of her birth, is known for the feminist filter through which she creates her work. Perhaps her most well known piece is The Dinner Party, which is an installation featuring a triangular table with place settings for 39 mythical and historical famous women. Working in a completely different area of the art spectrum, Bernard Fuchs had a long career as an illustrator and painter, with subjects ranging from Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to U.S. postage stamps, to work for many major magazines, including Sports Illustrated and The New Yorker.
The city of Chicago hosts a couple of large arts festivals each summer that feature art and artists from across the country. The Fountain Square Arts Festival in late June is centered around a large sculpture garden and has more than 250 artists displaying their work. The Bucktown Arts Fest in late August exhibits work by local and national painters, sculptors, craftspeople, and photographers.
HANDICRAFT AND FOLK ART
Illinois has a long history of folk art that’s been handed down over the generations, and it seems to have the quality of a living organism as it constantly evolves over time. One current Prairie State resident who is carrying on traditions from the past is Dale Evans of Bloomington, who makes mountain dulcimers. These stringed instruments originally came to America with Scottish and Irish immigrants, and worked their way into southern Illinois through the Appalachian Mountains and Kentucky.
Bill Heyduck of Charleston makes pottery that carries on traditions that look back to the mid-1800s. The Kirkpatrick family became famous for making whiskey bottles in the shape of pigs. In contrast, Heyduck creates items such as pitchers, jars, and teapots that all incorporate a distinctive feline appeal.
There are a multitude of crafts events that take place in Illinois each year, including the Carbondale Mountain Fair, which takes place in that city each July, and the Cedarhurst Craft Fair, which occupies the small town of Mount Vernon for a weekend each September.
-World Trade Press