Smile Politely

The Art Theater is closing; now what?

Last Friday, The Art Film Foundation announced that it will permanently cease operations on October 31st. This is a devastating loss for our community.

The Art Theater is — was — the only place in the area to regularly see smaller, independent films, foreign films, and film shorts. It was the only place you could go and have a glass of wine as you enjoyed a screening of a movie that would never, ever be on the lineup at Savoy 16 or AMC. It was a source of art and culture in an otherwise art- and culture-starved downtown.

Think and say what you want about The Art Film Foundation’s management and possible issues with the landlord; we’re not here to speculate or discuss those matters specifically. We don’t know enough about what happened behind closed doors.

What is clear is that we, as members of the C-U community, do not and cannot support the arts sufficiently enough to sustain them. The closure of The Art Theater is just a symptom of a larger problem. As a society, we do not care about building physical and intellectual spaces that prioritize and facilitate people living rich, meaningful, inclusive, and interesting lives. Our community systems do not seem to understand that in order to retain community members, you have to provide them with the scaffolding to build community. It’s not enough to recruit people to work or go to school here. You have to make them want to stay and build a life.

Do we support what few art and culture outlets we have in the ways that make a difference to them? Did we support The Art the best ways that we could? We could have gone to see another movie or two, and maybe those dollars would have made a difference — small amounts of money can really help small organizations — but a single person, or a group of persons cannot single (or multi) handedly “save” an organization. Where we failed The Art was in failing to advocate on its behalf to our elected representatives.

What have we done to insist that the City of Champaign makes a real effort to build up a cultural district? A city with no cultural capital is no city at all. People visit Downtown Champaign and eat dinner, but what do they do before or after? Maybe they go to a bar, or maybe they just go home because dining and drinking out is expensive, and often underwhelming. There is no longer anything meaningful to do in Downtown Champaign. There is very little shopping, and no stores that are regularly open after 7 p.m., except for Exile on Main/Dandelion, which close at 9 p.m. There are no live music venues. There are no museums, no longer any art galleries. There is nowhere to see any type of show, outside of the Virginia or Pour Bros on occasion, or Friday Night Live in the summer. But that sort of thing doesn’t define an arts scene; it merely complements one. 

In words any elected official can understand: That’s lost revenue, and lost opportunity.

The City of Champaign might take a cue from their neighbors to the east. They carve out money and time for a Public Arts and Culture Commission, with a full time employee, and grants offered to artists and cultural producers to do that work inside the city. Is it any surprise that Urbana plays host to a whopping thirteen active performance spaces and a good handful of art galleries? That doesn’t even count a robust house venue scene or the temporary music and performance venues that are active at various times throughout the year.

With its closure, The Art Theater leaves a gaping hole in arts and culture events. It’s possible for the Virginia Theatre to fill that absence, but there needs to be a vision for balancing old stuff with new, live performances with film. This could be an opportunity for the Champaign Park District to develop more robust programming, beyond nostalgic films and youth performances, to have the Virginia “resume its role as vibrant community center, active performance space, and bustling cinema.” There’s a lot of potential for really interesting and compelling programming, and we hope that it grows into something more.

As we’ve stated before, in a variety of ways: We need more corporate and institutional support of cultural production in C-U, more philanthropy and giving. We need our neighbors to want to support artistic and cultural production in C-U. We need sufficiently funded organizations to invest in the vibrancy and richness of our twin cities, to make this a place worth living. We need the cities of Champaign and Urbana (and the Village of Savoy for that matter) to get creative in their budgeting and prioritize building communities where people actually want to work and live long-term. And most importantly, we need our elected officials to acknowledge that they play a key role in creating space for that sort of engagement. 

The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.

Top photo by Patrick Singer; additional photo by Anna Longworth

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