This year has been a challenging one for the arts section — we’ve been without an editor for most of the year. We have done our best to present well-balanced coverage of our community, but there are undoubtedly things we missed. When putting together this year’s BEST, we were in the unique position to speak to many of these events from our own personal experiences, because we’ve been out covering this stuff ourselves more often than previous years. We roped in the rest of the editorial board, and as a group, we collected the things we individually and collectively loved most, though there are plenty of other things we probably could have included. 

The arts community in C-U is incredibly active and engaged, and we are truly lucky to have so many opportunities to reap the benefits of our neighbors’ creative endeavors. Even though we don’t always agree on decisions or what is beautiful, we are genuinely grateful to live in a place that celebrates all types of artistic expressions.

— Jessica Hammie, Managing Editor

BEST dance performance of the year: Cynthia Oliver’s Virago-Man Dem 

KCPA presents a whole bunch of dance performances over the course of the year, from dance troupes to UIUC students. Just last month, though, KCPA presented Cynthia Oliver’s Virago-Man Dem, a homecoming of sorts for Oliver, who is the Associate Vice Chancellor of Research in the Humanities, Arts, and Related Fields, and a professor of Dance. Her career as a dancer and choreographer is beyond impressive — she has won a Bessie Award, Creative Capital award, Illinois Arts Council award, and a Rockefeller Foundation MAP Fund (twice). In short: She’s a big deal.

Virago-Man Dem was presented in the Colwell Playhouse. The mid-sized space allowed for intimacy and also the spectacle and grandiosity of the performance. The work, vignettes and meditations on contemporary black masculinity, was powerful, beautiful, and engaging. The attention to all of details was evident. Oliver’s literal choreography in dance, as well as her choreography as project manager spoke to her capacity as a polyglot, as an orchestrator who is able to have all contributors contribute their best. It was a beautifully moving work of art. Her reception at the end of the show was equally moving. It was a moment for the community to do our best to show our appreciation for one of our own. (JH) Photo by Jessica Hammie

BEST local version of a Broadway musical: Fun Home at Station Theatre 

In 2015 I attended my first Broadway musical in NYC, and it was Fun Home. The show, based on a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, is an intimate, tender, and raw portrayal of her relationship with her father juxtaposed against her journey of coming out as a lesbian. Her father, a closeted gay man with an obsessive personality committed suicide when Bechdel was in college. I sat in the front row of small theater, feet literally touching the stage, as I watched the original Tony winning cast perform at times an arm’s length away. It was life-changing. Naturally I was thrilled to see that The Station would be taking on this show, but I was also apprehensive. I would be going in with ridiculously high expectations. The Celebration Company did a masterful job with the show, with perfectly cast actors, and The Station was the ideal venue to replicate the intimacy of the original. It would not have been possible to stage this appropriately at any other local venue. I left the show just as spellbound as I had in New York, which says a lot about the theater talent that we have here in C-U. (JM) Photo by Scott Wells

BEST Ebertfest moment: Ava Duvernay 

Ebertfest does a wonderful job of bringing in notable names every year, and has its share of memorable moments. This year's guest list included three black women who have made groundbreaking contributions to film: Julie Dash, Amma Asante, Ava DuVernay, who flew in to be on a panel following the screening of her film 13th. I believe my exact words when I heard she would be here in C-U were: “OH MY GOD AVA DUVERNAY IS GOING TO BE HERE.” Unfortunately, child-related activities impeded my ability to be in the audience for this (sigh), but fortunately our writer Nicole was there and did a great write up of the experience. 13th garnered a slew of nominations and awards, including an Emmy win and Oscar nomination, DuVernay had just released her film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, she’s currently working on a film about the Central Park Five, is easily one of the most important voices in film right now, and she graced our Virginia Theater stage in the midst of her star not just rising, but exploding. You can read more about bringing all three of these women to C-U in this post from Chaz Ebert. (JM) Photo by Nicole Anderson-Cobb

BEST current season lineup: KCPA 50th 

This September, KCPA kicked off its season with a bang — literally a marching band traveled through the lobby — with an evening filled with music, food, costumes, and revelry, and the season to follow is a diverse line up of returning favorites (Pygmalion, The Nutcracker, Nathan and Julie Gunn, The Builder’s Association, Savion Glover), new additions (Manuel Cinema, teen accordion virtuoso Hanzhi Wang, Circa, Cynthia Oliver), and a come home to Krannert anniversary weekend in April, which will bring together student, staff, faculty, donors, and anyone connected to Krannert over the past 50 years for a big celebration. And because one season is not enough to contain a fitting tribute to the center, the party continues next fall with a special 50th anniversary of Ellnora as well as a to–be–determined closing event in April 2020. Please make sure you are a part of some of these events. (JM) Photo by Kwamé Thomas

BEST place to see an interesting film: The Art Theater

Was there any other option? Sure, I suppose you could see an interesting film elsewhere, but The Art is the only place to see limited-release, independent, and/or otherwise less-than-mainstream stuff. You might even be able to catch a panel discussion afterward — you could even be on a panel discussion afterward. Plus the theater sells hot beverages and booze. It’s a charming old theater (Roger Ebert’s childhood theater!) and there’s some special about seeing a movie there. (JH) Photo by Anna Longworth

BEST artsy way to engage with U of I: BFA exhibition

There is unbelievable talent that exists within the student arts community in Champaign-Urbana, and we’re fortunate enough to have some of the best come through the programs offered at the University of Illinois and Parkland College. The exhibitions held at Krannert Art Museum that showcase these incredible students on their creative excursions through the Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program were just extraordinary in 2018, and should be an exhibition held at a very high regard each year in the community. That, plus the MFA exhibitions, are just a brief showcase of the creativity that’s perpetuated by the Art + Design program at U of I. Do yourself a favor and get yourself out to it when it comes around next time. (PS) Photo by Jessica Hammie; work copyright Jihee Lee. 

BEST U of I arts event: Fashion Show 

There are plenty of ways to engage in the arts community at the University of Illinois; Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and Krannert Art Museum offer fantastic programs.

But the best arts event is Susan Becker’s Fashion Design class’ fashion show. The annual event (the class is only in the spring) features the creations of mostly undergraduate students. Project parameters are more or less the same every year — they all focus on reusing and repurposing materials — but if you attend each year, you’d only know this from the program. Every year the students and their models slay. The projects are stunning and creative, the models have all the sass, and the hair and makeup are on point. The music is always fantastic, and it’s an all around good time.

The popularity of this event grows each year. The last couple of years it’s been in Temple Buell Hall and if you don’t arrive early, you might just be in standing room only on the balcony, which is still a wonderful spot. (JH) Photo by Melinda Edwards

BEST new work of fiction by a local author: Heads of the Colored People

We are so lucky to live in a community with so many incredible creative people. The University of Illinois-affiliated folks don’t often sing their own praises and/or promote their works here in Champaign-Urbana. If they’re tenure-track, it’s not exactly beneficial for them to do so, as national and international stages are prioritized. So sometimes the regular people in C-U miss out on the cool shit that people are doing.

This is not the case with Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ collection of short stories, Heads of the Colored People. This was my favorite book I’ve read this year, hands down. It’s sharp and funny, cutting and clever in a way that I rarely experience in text. I’m not the only one to enjoy this book; Thompson-Spires has been lauded for it all year. It’s been on a ton of Best of 2018 lists, long listed for the National Book Award, praised by Oprah, and Thompson-Spires has been on Late Night with Seth Meyers and the affiliated podcast to talk about it. If you haven’t read it yet, do yourself a favor and do so. It’s wonderful. (JH) Screenshot from National Book Foundation website

BEST new public sculpture:

I like these falling colorful boxes, named "Tip-See" done by a fella named Craig Snyder, very much. It’s playful, and fun, and makes me glad to be living somewhere that has people willing to stick their necks out to bring public art to the community. Some sculptures I don’t like, but this one, I do — very much. (SF) Photo by Seth Fein

BEST way to say hi after rehabbing an old building: Pour Bros. 

Some people just understand the way to show up. If Pour Bros. were your neighbor, you'd be grateful for them. They move in from Peoria, hands stretched out with genuine smiles on their faces, and did a great job rehabbing a building that needed it for decades. Then, immediately ask how they can make their little piece of space one that they can share. That's how you do it. 

Needless to say, my favorite new sculpture was sponsored by Pour Bros. and they didn't have to do that, and it is precisely what we need more of in Champaign-Urbana. (SF) Photo by Seth Fein

BEST new mural: Mural at 6th and Daniel

Earlier this year, we wrote a pretty substantial Editorial Board piece about public art in Champaign-Urbana, mostly about how we need more of it, and how we can do such a thing as a community. We saw some movement towards this as time went on, which, you know, is not by any means directly related to us posting a column about the topic. That said, three new murals have popped up, which is worth celebrating because progress is progress. There’s the mural behind Furniture Lounge by Kelly Hieronymous, another by Madelyn Witruk by Visit Champaign County’s office, and this one on Sixth and Daniel in Campustown by Eric Weatherford at Campus Ink. With all due respect to the previous two (both of whom are very talented artists in their own respects), this is the one that we felt made us as a collective go, “NICE!” Even aside from the elements of the community incorporated here — Foellinger Auditorium on the Quad, Altgeld Hall, the South Quad Bell Tower, and even the in-your-face iconic Animal House “COLLEGE” sweatshirt — the dreamer element of the screen-headed lightbulb-pulling character featured is such an excellent example of how to make an imaginative creation incorporate the elements of the community that are truly iconic. (PS) Photo by Visit Champaign County

BEST export: Helen Estabrook

For the past decade, Uni High graduate Helen Estabrook has been quietly walking on red carpets after having put in more hours than is imaginable, helping to make some of the best films that have come out in recent memory. Her 2014 film, Whiplash, was the toast of the Oscars, in a lot of ways. Her IMDB is jaw dropping, and for having just gotten started, she's more accomplished than some ever dream about. 

Yes, she grew up here, and yes, she is now deeply embedded inside of Hollywood’s producer community. And it’s so well deserved: she just doesn’t make bad films or shows, at all.

But don't take my word for it. Here, this is a person named Hugh Jackman saying so in front of a lot of people that count her as a colleague: 

So, this is someone we get to all be proud of, collectively, and I can’t wait to see what she does next. (SF) Photo from IMDB

BEST news for artists in Champaign-Urbana: Art Coop’s future

Art Coop is an artist's treasure, and its history and relevance to that community cannot be understated. It moved from campus to Lincoln Square Mall almost a decade back, and recently, it was purchased, in part last year, by local artist Anna Peters from its founder Knut Bauer, and then completely this past October, after co-owner Susan Smith retired. And that was great news, in and of itself, because it had been passed into great hands. But there's more! Another local artist, Hilary Pope, bought in as well recently, and the two of them will keep the torch lit, and our arts community engaged, hopefully for years and years to come.

Again, this is one of those resources that you just wouldn’t know how much you miss it until it is gone. I am deeply grateful to both of them for taking the project on, and keeping it available to all of us. (SF) Photo from Facebook 

Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer contributed to this article. 

A previous version of this article did not make mention that Anna Peters had purchased Art Coop from its founder, Knut Bauer.