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Princeton: Arts Big In Small Town

Guy Stephens/pixlr
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

Princeton is the county seat of Bureau County. It’s also the center for cultural activity that seems all out of proportion to its size.

Joni Hunt is Tourism Director for the City of Princeton. She says, no matter how you slice it, there’s a lot going on in this town of 7000.

“We have multiple platforms for artists and thespians and musicians, so it doesn’t matter what age you are, or what type of culture you’re interested in, there’s something for you here.”

Hunt points to the city's summer community band, drawing larger and larger crowds, the success of Festival 56, presenting theater summer and fall, and an arts academy that has just started, as well as the many events and programs at the Princeton Public Library and the Prairie Arts Council.

Credit Festival 56
A production at the Festival 56 summer theatre festival

But it was not always thus. Deb Young is President of the Prairie Arts Council. A Princeton native, she’d lived in Minneapolis for 10 years before returning in 1982.

“When I came back there wasn’t anything that had to do with the arts at all.”

So, Young opened up an art gallery. Then Young found out something. She was not alone. She was asked to form a fine arts committee that put on an outdoor fine arts festival for a number of years. Young also helped start what became the Princeton Coffeehouse.

“Come to find out there was a lot of people looking for things like that, that wanted to take part in this type of thing.”

There had been an arts council in town, but it had gone defunct. Young was asked to start one up again, and with the help of others, she did.

Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ
Prairie Arts Council President Deb Young

One of those helping was Ron McCutchan, director of programming at the Princeton Public Library. He says that he, Young and Festival 56 theater company founder Dexter Brigham are examples of why the arts started to take off in this spot.

“There’s something about Princeton that brings people back. I mean Dexter went to New York, toured, [then] came back here to start something. I went to New York, worked in publishing, came back to take a publishing job and ended up staying in Princeton here at the library. And I’ve had other friends do the same.”

Early on, Young realized that there needed to be a next step for the Arts Council.

“I said we have to have a facility, to show that we’re serious, and we want these events to come to Princeton.”

So, in 1996, the council bought a vacant building in town, a small Romanesque structure that had been home to a United Church of Christ. The council has been there ever since, putting on theatrical shows and hosting art exhibitions.

Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ
The Prairie Arts Council building in Princeton, IL

McCutchan says the idea of having a permanent space is more important than you might think. He says the fact that, along with the Arts Council, Festival 56 and other arts organizations have gotten their own homes seems only to increase the possibilities.

“It’s been a kind of interesting thing where we’ve, in a lot of senses, thought about spaces for culture, and then the culture has filled the spaces.”

McCutchan’s colleague at the library, curator Margaret Martinkus, can attest to that. The library itself got a new, and bigger, building about five years ago, and Martinkus remembers the first arts show held in it.

“105 things showed up, 105 pieces of art that came from here. Who’d think that, in a little town like this, we’d have all these artists?”

McCutchan says the former library director ran with the idea that there might be an untapped audience out in the community, as well as a pool of talent, and filled the new library’s calendar with a wide range of classes and events. McCutchan says he has tried to keep that up, because now people expect it.

Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ
The Princeton Public Library. Residents says its many programs as well as its coffee shop have made it a center of the community

One of the highest profile arts groups in town is Festival 56, which this year begins its 10th season. It bills itself as Illinois’ largest summer theater festival. Artistic Director and founder Dexter Brigham says the festival draws its audience from around the Midwest but, as far as he’s concerned, the real secret to its success is the way the town has embraced it.

“They come to see all the shows. But on top of that, they’re there greeting the actors and the designers on the street. They’re calling their friends and telling them to come in, and they’re taking these people into their home, making sure they have a good experience here.”

Arts Council President Deb Young says none of these things would have happened without volunteers to keep things going. Young says the number coming forward over the years is doubly astonishing given the size of the town, and it just goes to show that the interest in the community is there, given an opportunity. 

Young, McCutchan and Brigham all say something else that has figured in the success of the city’s cultural activities has been solid and consistent support from the mayor and city council. Princeton Tourism’s Joni Hunt says local officials realized what was happening was a good thing for the community.

“I think we made a decision that supporting the arts and culture was important for our overall health and our long term success at growing our city.”

Young and the others speculate that changing demographics have contributed, too. People from Chicago and other cities moving to Princeton for a small-town atmosphere, yet still wanting some of the cultural amenities they were used to.

Hunt says now there’s another factor at work these days: a kind of synergy as groups work together.

“It’s getting bigger than all of us, and what’s happening by collaborating is the best possible scenario.” Left to right: Princeton Public Library Curator Margaret Martinkus, Princeton Tourism & Marketing Director Joni Hunt, Princeton Public Library Programming & Marketing Director Ron McCutchan and Festival 56 Director and founder Dexter Brigham.

Dexter Brigham says all he knows is that, after his success in Princeton, he’d thought he’d figured out the key to making a go of theater in a small town. So he went out on the road to neighboring communities.

“and every single experiment we’ve made has been a complete flop.”

In Princeton, though, he and the others continue to do just fine.

Guy Stephens produces news stories for the station, and coordinates our online events calendar, PSAs and Arts Calendar announcements. In each of these ways, Guy helps keep our listening community informed about what's going on, whether on a national or local level. Guy's degrees are in music, and he spent a number of years as a classical host on WNIU. In fact, after nearly 20 years with Northern Public Radio, the best description of his job may be "other duties as required."
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