Algonquin tapping into the power of art downtown

A sculpture stands tall at the southeast corner of Algonquin and Randall roads in Algonquin. The village sees potential for development in its public artworks master plan.
A sculpture stands tall at the southeast corner of Algonquin and Randall roads in Algonquin. The village sees potential for development in its public artworks master plan.

ALGONQUIN – Including this year’s new public pieces, about 225 works of art have been displayed throughout Algonquin since the village’s public art program began in 2005.

The Algonquin Public Arts Commission, established six years ago, moved quickly to change the cultural landscape of the village.

The idea was to place a cultural stamp on the community, addressing fears that Algonquin was developing a reputation for traffic gridlock and retail sprawl.

Steve Kaniewski, an art major at DePauw University in Indiana who has led the commission since its inception, said the village has struggled with how to promote its downtown for decades. He believes art might be part of the solution.

“We’re missing a huge opportunity for public art in the downtown and the opportunity to use that commodity to attract people to that area,” the 40-year Algonquin resident said. “We’ve talked about the public art commission loaning out art to different restaurants. It would be on exhibit, and each restaurant would have an opportunity to participate. It’s so simple, but it takes one of us on the committee to say that this project is one we believe in and we really want to move forward with it.”

The village’s public art master plan calls for fostering “the creation of flexible policies that provide opportunities for artful public spaces” in an effort to “enrich, stimulate and enhance the aesthetic experience.” The plan goes on:

“Public art should be designed to complement the visual experience that is the cornerstone of Algonquin’s identity. In addition, the placement of public art throughout Algonquin will contribute to the village’s economic draw and be an ongoing educational tool for the community. By virtue of the effort, the community should become a richer place for residents and visitors, and Algonquin’s image in the region is more unique.”

At the urging of a friend, Kaniewski became interested in the idea of a formal art process. He was instrumental, along with other art project volunteers, in creating the village’s vision for art. Two, Regina Andrews and Kenneth Webster, remain on the commission.

“Other communities have public art commissions. Some of them are better financed than what Algonquin can do,” Kaniewski said. “But it has taken hold. The artists loved it because here’s a village that is going to put my stuff out there, and there is some nice notoriety that comes from that. It sets Algonquin apart form the rest of the Fox Valley and other similar villages in Illinois. We stand apart because of a simple thing like a public art project.”

Each year, the village solicits artists to lend original artworks for one year. The commission reviews a new group of art submission based upon selection criteria outlined in the master plan and then forwards recommendations to the Village Board for approval. Last fall, the arts commission organized its seventh collection.

There are 35 works – ranging from sculpture to photography, ceramics and paintings – at a dozen locations. Ben Mason, a senior planner who oversees the program, said the village typically receives 50 to 80 entries.

Deidre Schanen, a Campton Hills resident and regular participant, said Algonquin’s public art program provides valuable exposure for artists.

“It’s just a wonderful opportunity to express yourself without any judgment – and it’s just plain fun,” Schanen said. “The artists get to show their work, and I love having my paintings someplace where they are seen. ... In Village Hall, it’s right there. The public gets to know it and see more often.”

Judith Halek, a mixed-media artist from Lakewood, agreed.

“It’s good exposure and a good opportunity for artists,” she said. “It brings art to the people.”

Village staff are responsible for managing the overall program, supervising maintenance of artwork, coordinating community public art education events, researching and applying for outside funding for the public art project, erecting signs and maintaining the collection.

Algonquin artist Jennifer Browe-Ullery, who has a painting on display at Jacobs High School, believes this “progressive” program is critical to the village and its residents. She said nothing would make her happier than Algonquin cultivating a reputation for being a bastion for the arts.

“Art has been an island of safety my entire life,” said Browe-Ullery, 37. “If children are not exposed to it when they are young, how are they going to know about it?”

Besides temporary loans, the village’s public art master plan also identified private development, acceptance of gifts and purchasing as ways to build its collection.

Schanen and Halek donated art and the village recently bought its first piece – a sculpture titled “Adam & Eve Mourning Over the Soul of Abel” – which sits outside Village Hall at 2200 Harnish Drive. One developer has chosen to provide its own artwork – the “Samara Series” sculpture – at the Oakridge Court shopping center off Randall Road.

“I think part of the original objective was to promote art as a way of building up the village’s image and sort of create a sense of place,” Mason said.

But that is just part of the mission. The village also is striving to highlight public spaces and showcase local artists. It is organizing its fifth annual “Algonquin’s Art on the Fox” show June 30 and July 1 in Riverfront Park. It held its first student art exhibit, for grades six through eight, April 26-28 at Village Hall.

“We want art to be a part of the village’s identity, to promote it, and have it be a part of the cultural scene for the area,” Mason said. “That is something the commission is pleased to have started.”

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