Smile Politely

Art at the Cinema in Downtown Urbana

sculpture of a man with sheep on his head for hair sits inside cinema gallery
Sculpture by Chris Berti; photo by Michael Bergonzi

As you walk down East Main Street in Downtown Urbana, between Race and Vine, you’ll notice a large cinema marquee. Outside, the interior looks dark, maybe even foreclosed. But Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the lights are on, and the old cinema building becomes not a place for movies, but a place for the appreciation and sale of art.

ceramics sit in a room on white stands with paintings hanging on the walls behind.
Cinema Gallery on Facebook

The Cinema Art Gallery opened its doors 29 years ago, but the building’s history dates back much further. Originally an opera house called Busey’s Hall in 1870, the lifespan of the building was almost cut short only one year after opening. In 1871, the area of downtown Urbana area fell victim to a fire and only Busey’s Hall remained. People then and now compared the flames to the great Chicago fire, which happened that same year.

After surviving the fire, Busey’s Hall eventually became the Princess Theater in 1915. The Princess was a combination of a performance hall and movie theater. The venue ran performances and films all the way up to 1995 when the current owner bought it from Kerasotes Theatres. Now the theater is the Cinema Art Gallery. It’s run by Carolyn Baxley.

Cinema Gallery has shown works of some well-known artists including Victor Wang, Frank Gallo, and James H. Lynch. All three artists have ties to the Midwest.

Three paintings by Victor Wang hang on a wall at Cinema Gallery
Paintings by Victor Wang, photo by Michael Bergonzi

Born in Qiqihar, China — Victor Wang graduated with a BFA from one of the top three art institutes in China — Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts. He taught at his alma matter for four and a half years before coming to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a visiting scholar. He currently teaches at Fontbonne University near St. Louis, MO. One of his works, Sandy, currently hangs near a staircase inside the Cinema Art Gallery, just past the Gallery’s lobby. Much of his work uses oil paints in an almost impressionistic way. Think Vincent Van Gogh, but with Chinese subject people and subject matter.

cast paper sculpture of a young Asian girl; entirely white with no color
Work by Frank Gallo, photo by Michael Bergonzi

Frank Gallo was represented by Carolyn Baxley and the Cinema Art Gallery starting in 2001 when the gallery first opened, up until his death in 2019. While Gallo’s work has erotic undertones, the artist has stated that he is “glorifying the female form rather than objectifying it.” One of his works sits in the Cinema Gallery’s room for estate art.

photo-realistic painting of a single sycamore with a blue sky
Lone Sycamore by James Lynch

The entrance to the gallery features a photo-realistic painting done by James. H. Lynch. The painting is of a sycamore tree that looks like it was inspired by the backroads between Urbana and Mahomet. Lynch passed away in 2014, but taught painting and drawing at the U of I from 1946–1976.

There is a wide variety of art found at the Cinema Art Gallery. Ceramics are the most popular for their functionality. There are also more unusual pieces, such as a sculpture of a man with sheep on his head for hair created by Chris Berti — a professor at Parkland College who retired last year. The gallery’s most sold works of art as of now are the painted and carved wooden birds created by an artist in Virginia.

Thomas Skaggs is one of two artist Baxley currently represents who creates artwork where both form and function work together. He works primarily with wood. One such example of form and function working together is his “Berry Wall Cabinet.” The carved wooden berry decorations, which seem to be on an engraved leaf, pop out. The three-dimensional effect makes an otherwise plain wooden cabinet stand out. The other artist who mixes form and function is Dwain Naragon who works with clay. However, drawing, printmaking, metalsmithing, and even basketry all have had a major impact on his ceramic work.

One would think with all the events at the U of I, the gallery would bring in a lot of foot traffic. Certain events like mom and dad’s weekends do bring in some new customers in the form of a student’s parents each time they come back to campus to visit their child. “Sometimes they make it over to the downtown areas and sometimes they don’t,” says Baxley. “But it’s mainly Champaign-Urbana residents who really are my base of support.”

While many of Baxley’s artists are well-known in the art community locally and abroad, the Cinema Gallery in Downtown Urbana remains a mystery to some locals in the area. Baxley says that the first question she often gets, even from local people is “Oh my goodness, I didn’t know you were here.” The gallery may elude some and perhaps the price of the art is out of some people’s budgets. The price of paintings, for example ranges, from $200 to $16,000 or $17,000. But its artwork is figuratively priceless and free to look at.

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