DANVILLE — The local arts scene — made up of about nine theater companies, five dance groups, dozens of bands and choirs, a symphony orchestra and an official art league — is impressive for a town of fewer than 35,000 residents.
Almost every lifelong Danville resident would be hard-pressed to remember a time before local art was celebrated.
While this year marks 30 years of Arts in the Park, the arts have been around the area long before 1988.
It was 1938 when the Danville Art League officially formed, and in 1955, members started the first Art in the Park (without the “s” until it would later become Arts in the Park).
When it was getting its start, the location moved from downtown to the old Elks building before finally settling at Lincoln Park. It also showcased only visual art as part of a one-day competition among artists from as far as Connecticut and Mexico.
It operated that way for several decades when the time came to expand, said Larry Weatherford, who served on the AITP board for more than 20 years. He and his wife, Rhea Ann, each served several terms as board president.
“Catherine Johnson (former Art League president) got together with local groups like Danville Symphony Orchestra, Red Mask Theater and Danville Light Opera,” Weatherford said. “So they added the ‘s’ — making it Arts in the Park.”
The Art League has always remained involved, but in 1988, a board was formed solely dedicated to planning and running AITP.
“They wanted to expand it from just visual art to all art,” Weatherford said. “As time changed and people changed, a lot of what has happened with the entertainment has changed as well.”
There are some memorable moments from when the new Arts in the Park got its start in highlighting the region's performing arts.
Before the Lincoln Park Stage was constructed, a make-shift entertainment space was put together using the Danville Municipal Band’s fold-able stage next to semi-trailers.
Both Weatherford and local artist Gary Resh remember using that stage for the Danville Symphony Orchestra and some of the larger choir groups.
A member of the municipal band, Alvin Haas, led an effort to raise money for an actual stage.
Concrete was eventually poured — and entertainers sweated through performances for a number of years before the roof was built. Donations and local politicians supported finishing the stage, Weatherford said, which is officially named the “Entertainment Center.”
Resh and Weatherford said one of the most memorable events was when the symphony performed "The 1812 Overture," firing muskets to simulate the sound of cannons.
“It was a wonderful evening,” Resh said. “It really brought everyone together that weekend.”
Every year since its start, Arts in the Park tries to continue evolving while holding true to its roots, board member Chris Lucas said.
“We have kept the same foundation, but have changed with the times and grown,” she said. “It’s evolved and improved.”
Local artists and out-of-towners alike showcase their talents every year at Lincoln Park.
When making the stage schedule, Lucas said she starts with the local core group of performers, including dance companies and barbershop quartets, and then takes suggestions from the board.
“We go from a local dance company, to a symphony violinist, to a bagpipe band,” board member Nathan Ingold said, explaining the variety of the lineup.
“And it took us three years to get them!” Lucas said of the Fountain Trust Bagpipe Band.
Ingold said the goal for each year is to be better than the last.
Of course Arts in the Park features fine art, including paintings, pottery, photography and more, as part of the Artist Promenade.
Board President Sue Harden said a jury committee approves the fine art to be on display, noting that items such as quilts and books don’t qualify.
She said the board starts working on the event every year in September, meaning they get only a couple of a months to take a break after the event before it’s time to start planning next year’s.
It also takes heaps of volunteers, sponsors and donors to put the event on year after year.
“It’s the whole town blended together,” Ingold said.
Many volunteers and board members help the out-of-town artists feel welcomed to Danville. A private reception kicks the weekend off and gives patrons the opportunity to meet some of the performers and artists.
“I think the community really supports everything really well,” Harden said. “It’s a nice getaway.”
And to celebrate the 30th year, the celebration will extend further into the evening on Saturday with the band Sun Stereo performing a 8 p.m. on the Lincoln Park Stage. The Urbana-based band describes itself “Beatlesque” with an electronic sound. They follow a 5:30 p.m. performance of a Danville Symphony Orchestra brass quintet — which marks DSO's first appearance at Arts in the Park in five years.
Throughout the weekend, with so many local and regional artists together at the same place, spectators can see the variety of genres and styles firsthand.
“It’s really up to each person — what they consider art,” Ingold said. “But there’s a strong likelihood with the diversity here that they will find something that speaks to them.”
If You Go
Events to look forward to include:
• A performance by a Danville Symphony Orchestra brass quintet at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the Lincoln Park Stage. This is the first time DSO will perform at the arts event in five years.
• Theater Row, which showcases performances on Saturday and Sunday from seven local theater companies. This is the second year of a designated Theater Row, and Chris Lucas said it’s more “up close and personal” than stage performances.
• The Sidewalk Chalk Contest from 9:30 a.m. to noon Saturday. Lucas said this is a fan favorite event with dozens of participants every year.
-The Annual Art on Wheels Car Show 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday (registration is at 9 a.m.) The Illinois Antique Auto Club presents the show, featuring awards for Top 50, Best of Show and Mayor’s Choice.