For a region whose claim to fame is the phrase “Will it play in Peoria?” people don’t automatically associate our region with a vibrant arts industry. However, did you know that our performing arts industry is one of the leading income sources for our region? In fact, the Performing Arts industry cluster is in the 75th percentile by location quotient and is ranked 50th in the United States! Let’s take a journey and look at our vibrant and diverse art industry in Greater Peoria.
First, let’s go back to the origins of “Will it Play In Peoria.” The phrase originated during the vaudeville era and was popularized in movies by Groucho Marx. The belief was that if a new show were successful in Peoria, a main Midwestern stop for vaudeville acts, it would be successful anywhere. This phrase was subsequently adopted by politicians, pollsters, and promoters to question the potential mainstream acceptance of anything new. According to James C. Ballowe, a former dean of Bradley University graduate school, Peoria was a tough audience. As such, “it bombed in Peoria” or “it was great in Peoria” had recognizable meanings from one coast to the other.
This led to Peoria becoming one of the leading test markets. Peoria has long been seen as a prototypical American city in the United States because of its representative demographics and its Midwestern culture, which is commonly perceived as mainstream. In the 1980s and ’90s, comedians like Sam Kinison (a native son of Peoria) and musicians such as Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Metallica, and Phil Collins all perfected and launched concert tours in Peoria. During presidential campaigns, major TV networks would visit Peoria to gauge the response of everyday Americans on national issues and political candidates.
Peoria is famously the home of legendary, groundbreaking comedian Richard Pryor, as well as noted singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg. But performing arts is not just our past, but our present and future, too. Peoria is still a buzzing spot for arts and entertainment and a huge income generator for the region. We have an expansive art community and a variety of people who both support and are at the forefront of galleries, theaters, event venues, live music, poetry readings, stand-up comedy, open mics, and so much more.
The Peoria Civic Center, one of the largest event venues in Illinois, hosts sold out shows ranging from rock concerts to Broadway plays.
Our region also boasts of the Peoria Riverfront Museum, the nation’s only multidisciplinary museum. The museum manages a permanent collection of 15,000 objects and organizes more than 20 self-curated and visiting exhibitions annually in five major galleries and twenty-five total display spaces. Special programs include a 40-ft dome planetarium, a 194-seat giant screen movie theater (the largest in the state), and an array of educational programming that provides museum classes, camps, lectures, tours, travel programs, and digital and video content. The museum has more than 200 community and national programs and content partners, including affiliation with the Smithsonian.
We also have one of the oldest symphony orchestras in the nation! The Peoria Symphony Orchestra is currently in its 125th season and provides a wide range of classical and contemporary entertainment for the residents and visitors to the region.
Our creative community isn’t limited to performing arts and covers a wide range of visual arts. Recently, GPEDC partnered with Tri-County Regional Planning Commission and the Big Picutre Initiative to catalog all of the 60+ public murals in the region and create a cool, interactive map that would be unveiled in January. Networking and advocacy groups like Arts Partners of Central Illinois help increase the vibrancy of our arts scene. The Peoria Art Guild hosts a nationally recognized art fair on the banks of the Illinois River each September, drawing hundreds of artists from around the country along with thousands of patrons. One newer organization is the Peoria Guild of Black Artists (PGOBA). Founded right after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, PGOBA is a group of local Black creatives with a mission to bring that community together, uplift one another, advocate and provide a platform for Black art in the region. We also have individuals such as renowned animation artist Bob Doucette of Animaniacs fame and Alexander Martin, an artist, performer, and Arts Professor who relocated to Greater Peoria due to the community of artists they found here.
Private art, public art. Performing arts, visual arts. Big venues, intimate settings. A vibrant scene that both improves our quality of life and is a major economic engine. There is so much to see and do in our region. It all truly plays here.