By MELISSA MERLI
At first glance, Champaign-Urbana might not seem like a place where the arts thrive. Rest assured, the twin cities are small in size but are not cultural backwaters.
In fact, Mike Ross, director of the internationally known Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, refers to C-U as the coolest micro-urban community he’s encountered. And he’s visited many.
Krannert Center, the crown jewel of the arts venues here, as well as other venues draw top-notch to more obscure artists and entertainers, from the high-brow to low-brow to avant-garde to DIY. Also keeping things interesting on a nearly daily basis are artists, musicians, dancers and intellectuals, and University of Illinois faculty, retired faculty, spouses and alumni who call C-U home.
Along with a few transplanted New Yorkers such as Ross, they all offer a steady stream of inventive art, theater, music, dance and even movie-making, resulting in a thriving arts community with breadth and depth.
The cultural events here take place seemingly everywhere, from funky bars, living rooms and backyards to concert halls and theaters, among them the 1,500-seat vintage Virginia Theatre in Champaign, which underwent extensive renovations this past summer and early fall.
There, Roger Ebert´s Film Festival takes place each year in late April, in addition to other shows year-round. Legendary blues guitarist Buddy Guy performed at the theater two years ago, and humorist David Sedaris has lectured there at least twice.
Krannert Center, a multi-theater complex that covers two blocks on campus, offers more than 300 performances a year, and not just world-class classical music acts. The upcoming season will feature popular acts like singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega; The Robert Johnson Centennial Concerts, featuring, among other acts, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, who played with Johnson in the 1930s; and Drumline Live, a live spin off of the movie, “Drumline.”
In just a few weeks, the center will kick off the new season with its popular Opening Night Party, featuring the Cuban-music band Tiempo Libre from Miami, Fla. Admission to the party is $5 for everyone. The event also features local restaurants selling their wares on the Krannert roof.
Don´t confuse Krannert Center with Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion, also on the UI campus. Directed by Kathleen Harleman, whose main interest is contemporary art, the museum boasts a permanent collection of 9,000 works from ancient Egyptian and Colombian to contemporary.
The museum presents more than a dozen temporary exhibitions each year in addition to more permanent ones, showcasing international, national and regional artists. The museum augments those with opening-night parties and other lively events.
Also making C-U an interesting place to live are other university units such as the School of Art + Design, School of Music, Department of Theatre and Department of Dance. All have outstanding faculty, some of whom add a lot to the local mix. The music, theater and dance schools are in-residence at Krannert Center, presenting their shows there year-round.
Classical music buffs especially should be happy. The UI School of Music offers free faculty recitals and other concerts that charge nominal admission, as well as a variety of events, among them the Allerton Music Barn Festival at the university-owned Allerton Park near Monticello.
This year´s, Sept. 2-6, will open with a cabaret night by opera baritone Nathan Gunn and his wife, Julie, a pianist; the UI jazz faculty, with guest artists Jon Faddis, trumpeter; the Grammy Award-winning Pacifica Quartet; the music of Johann Sebastian Bach; pianist Ian Hobson; and an evening serenade of music by Mozart and Strauss.
Outside campus, the Champaign Urbana Theatre Company, a community theater company, presents musicals year-round , plus an all-youth production each summer. The Station Theatre, in an old train depot in Urbana, offers cutting-edge contemporary fare.
The Parkland Theatre offers up plays and musicals during the academic year. And Parkland College also fields music ensembles and concerts that are open to the community. Its Staerkel Planetarium is home to rock music and other shows.
The Champaign and Urbana park districts also offer youth theater programs each summer.
Whether you want to watch or participate, you’ll find that C-U is home to a plethora of other arts groups.
The CU Ballet, a pre-professional company, presents a beautiful “Nutcracker” every holiday season at Krannert Center, in addition to other ballets. There are a number of private dance studios and organized dance groups that offer everything from ballroom to salsa to tango to contra.
People wanting to learn to play musical instruments or who want to play in community groups have a lot of choices, among them the nonprofit Conservatory of Central Illinois in downtown Champaign, the nonprofit Community Center for the Arts at Lincoln Square Village in Urbana, and the new Urbana Pops Orchestra. There are numerous private instructors as well.
Visual artists have places here to exhibit their work, such as the Cinema Gallery, Amara Yoga and Arts Studio, the Indi Go Artist Cooperative, the Old Vic Art Gallery, Wind Water & Light, bookstores, coffeehouses and other businesses.
The Parkland Art Gallery puts on several shows a year, including biennial watercolor and ceramics invitationals.
And each year in April, the business-art connection is emphasized in the Boneyard Arts Festival, which matches countless venues with artists and offers up a variety of guerilla-style performances on the streets. There are other arts festivals in C-U as well, among them Krannert Center’s Ellnora Guitar Festival, featuring the finest guitarists in the world. The next will be in early September 2011.
And people who are less mainstream, who like to mix radical politics and art, can do that with like-minded souls in the old post office building in downtown Urbana, home of the Champaign-Urbana Independent Media Center, and with the Urbana-based School for Designing a Society.
Acting as a clearinghouse for information and to connect arts-inclined folks is 40 North 88 West Champaign County Arts, Culture and Entertainment Council. The council´s motto: “Art lives here.”