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ArtWauk: Art Cooperative Entices Visitors

ArtWauk, a monthly explosion of the tactical application of the arts, contributes to the cultural education and artistic appreciation in Waukegan, while helping the economic development of the downtown. Every month, different artwork, artists and spaces are involved, challenging the community to understand art in all its forms.

This grassroots event transforms from one month to the next, sometimes following a theme – such as honoring veterans and active military – and more often being as individualistic as the artists themselves.

Galleries participating in ArtWauk have hosted internationally, nationally and locally known artists who work in a variety of media with diverse themes. Internationally known contemporary visual artist Trevor Bell’s warehouse-sized abstracts were featured in Urban Edge Gallery. Sculptor Bruce Niemi, whose works appear throughout the United States, was integral to exhibit entitled “Texture.”

A curated show from the Richard Harris Art Collection attracted first time visitors to Waukegan, including families in town for graduation at Naval Station Great Lakes, art enthusiasts from Chicago and Milwaukee, and Genesee Theatre patrons who made a point of arriving early specifically to see the exhibit. Original works by Rembrandt, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Ultrect, Albrecht Dürer, Jasper Johns, Marcos Raya and Robert Mapplethorpe were among the museum quality pieces featured in the exhibit. Because of the importance and nature of this exhibit, the gallery was open specific days every week to maximize its availability to visitors.

Art Evolution
Locally revered artists, such as Maggie Schwarz Kraus and Skip Wiese were at the start of the art evolution in Waukegan decades ago and continue to be active in the art revolution. Dandelion Gallery partnered with both Swingline and Waukegan Tire on separate exhibits that used materials from those corporations in their works. Dandelion Gallery also supports young artists through a high school gallery show and a scholarship program. The Mic in the Karcher Artspace holds spoken word showcases monthly and experiments with pairing performance and visual arts. Karcher 405 Gallery developed a show celebrating Black History Month entitled “Black [N][V][Adj]”, featuring a film, roundtable discussions, physical art and culinary art centered on the African-American experience in the United States.

Live performances and pop-up galleries round out the offerings during this cooperative art experience. On any given ArtWauk night, Jerry Seinfeld may be making people laugh at the Genesee Theatre, Three Brothers Theatre may be showcasing the world premiere of an up-and-coming playwright, and punk bands may be at The Burgundy Room – within blocks of each other.

Outdoor pop-up galleries featuring photographs of lost architectural wonders or traditional Dia de Muertes sugar add to the offerings and the diverse flavor of the exhibits. These temporary, pop-up galleries are often stepping stones for new artists to become part of the art scene, at times leading to a permanent bricks-and-mortar space.

The original concept of the ArtWauk was to fill vacant properties to improve the perception of the downtown neighborhood. The ultimate goal was to make available spaces vibrant enough to recruit viable businesses, creating local jobs, broadening the tax base and improving the overall quality of life in Waukegan. On Waukegan’s birthday, February 23, in 2002, Mayor Dan Drew and other visionaries supported the first ArtWauk.

When the historic Genesee Theatre re-opened in 2005, focus shifted to programming the city’s new investment and away from the organic grassroots model. While several ArtWauks took place, it wasn’t until 2011 that the event became monthly.

In February 2011, a team consisting of artists, volunteers, city staff and Waukegan Main Street staff coordinated a grand opening for Dinosaur Studio Tattoo and the new office for Illinois State Representative Rita Mayfield. On the same block. On the same day. Organizers and business owners alike were thrilled to see people from every walk of life come downtown for the free event and to celebrate new doors opening. Six years on, they are both still a vibrant part of the arts community and their neighbor, Family Piano Co., has expanded to include additional lesson rooms and a performance space as more people become keenly aware of the documented benefits of arts and music.

The success of this model has been remarkable. Thanks to cooperation from forward-thinking property owners, the team renovated space for six new businesses to open on one block of South Genesee Street. The basic model was put into play by these steps: a property owner shares keys to a small retail space with an ArtWauk artist. The artist rallies volunteers to paint walls, scrub the windows and floors, replace lighting and turn the space into a professional gallery, recruiting more artists and hanging a show. The volunteer force would be the basis of the marketing machine, distributing and posting flyers and utilizing social media to draw people to the grand opening.

The return on investment for the property owners was hundreds of people walking through their available facilities and seeing the spaces in the best possible light. Every one of the six original spaces has been rented to a paying tenant.

The years of monthly ArtWauks have energized and positively changed Waukegan’s downtown. Property owners have enjoyed renewed interest in their buildings; business owners reap the rewards of more foot traffic; artists delight in additional spaces to exhibit; and the overall perception of downtown has dramatically improved. City spokesman David Motley, an artist and one of the event organizers, was quoted in the Lake County News-Sun: “Waukegan is known as that destination to come experience art. We’re able to enjoy five years of success and five years of a good reputation. People have expectations when they come to ArtWauk that are really high.”

ArtWauk continues to evolve with the times, with the art, and with the community.

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