Melissa Merli: We could use more shows at research park

Melissa Merli: We could use more shows at research park

Can't we have more concerts at the University of Illinois Research Park?

The natural amphitheater, nestled between red-brick buildings, is just perfect for sound and atmosphere, and the two Outside at the Research Park concerts there this summer have drawn record crowds.

The scene is so mellow, and concertgoers all seem to be in a good collective mood and enjoying themselves.

At the Spuyten Duyvil show July 12, families spread out picnics, some on cloth-covered tables.

Children climbed the grassy berms — someone told me the grass was tall during the first Outside at the Research Park concert June 14 but quickly became trampled.

And kids scampered and waved fluorescent toys.

"This is so family friendly," one of my friends without kids commented.

And the sound person had the seven-member, Yonkers, N.Y.-based Spuyten Duyvil at a nice auditory level. My only complaint was I couldn't clearly hear Efrat Shapira's excellent fiddle until I walked closer to the stage.

Beth Kaufman-Miller's vocals came through strong and clear, though. As to be expected, she was trained in musical theater.

Throughout the concert, the Americana roots band leader, Mark Miller, said how happy the group was to be there, even though band members had driven 14 hours to get to Champaign. He said they don't like to fly.

I usually omit sponsor lists from my stories. But we should thank the sponsors of these concerts and urge them to continue the series. The main ones are Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, the UI and Fox/Atkins Development. I happened to see Peter Fox walk through the crowd July 12.

Other sponsors: Prosource, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon, and Champaign Cycle Co. I guess we need to thank the Illinois Natural History Survey/Prairie Research Institute as well.

CUTC board

While rewriting a news release from the Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company last week, (that story is here) I was struck by the large number of new board members who work in business or development.

Sandra Jones, the new board chairwoman, said the intent was to expand the range of experience and expertise and to diversify the board in terms of race, economic level and especially age.

"We now have 20- and 30-somethings plus us 'wise elders' and everything in between," she said.

The new board also was designed to balance fresh points of view with prior history and to balance a financial and strategic skill set with existing theater knowledge and skills.

Jones has a UI master's of business administration degree and owns All Things Illini, which she launched in May 2011. All Things Illini operates in the Greek licensed and collegiate retail market to sell branded merchandise and gifts.

Simon award

Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon has received the 2013 Public Leadership in the Arts Award from Americans for the Arts and the National Lieutenant Governors Association.

"Lt. Gov. Simon is a true champion for the arts in Illinois," Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts, said in a news release. "She is the perfect choice for the Public Leadership in the Arts Award because she believes that the arts are not only a vital economic driver, but also essential to the academic and social development of every child in the state."

Since taking office in January 2011, Simon has advocated for the arts, culture and arts education. In June, she helped launch the Illinois Arts Education Advisory Committee, which is to develop a new state-level policy agenda for increasing arts education access, equity and quality.

Before becoming lieutenant governor, Simon served for five years as a member of the Illinois Arts Council.

"When students have access to arts education, they are more successful in and out of the classroom," she said. "It is important that Illinois leaders work together to stabilize the public pension system, preserve funding for education and allow students to express themselves through art, music, theater and other programs."

She's also a musician and artist who sings and plays the banjo and bassoon with Loose Gravel, a blues and boogie band with traces of folk, rock, country and funk, with vocal harmonies. It formed in 1998.


Michael Conner, who most recently was an art consultant and appraiser and was a former African art curator at Krannert Art Museum, died July 14 at age 63 in his Champaign home, surrounded by his family, according to the funeral home obituary.

Mr. Conner was a citizen of the world. At age 7, he moved with his family to the Philippines and later lived in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Africa and briefly in Nigeria. He had a master's degree and a doctorate in art history from Indiana University.

"Michael lived in wonder of life. He was a philosopher who shared his love of knowledge freely," his obit reads. "Although he was a professor and museum curator during his career, he was most proud of his early years as a stay-at-home dad and most recently as an art consultant and art appraiser.

"He was considered an expert in the art of southeast Africa. His understanding of history, world religion and art bridged cultural differences and resulted in friendships that spanned the globe."

Mr. Conner, who died of cancer, never wanted to be defined by the disease.

"Those he shared his illness with were humbled by his grace, optimism and humor," reads the obituary.

I believe that: I was acquainted with Mr. Conner and had always been struck by his personal warmth and kindness. My condolences to his family.

A celebration of his life will take place at the family farm at a later date. Donations may be made to

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

Topics (4):Art, Music, People, Theater

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