Arts Matter In Aurora Downtown's Success

Feb 6, 2020

Aurora’s downtown is transforming into what some are calling an “arts district.” 

Melissa Mercado is the executive director of the Fox Valley Music Foundation. It runs The Venue, a performance space located in the heart of downtown Aurora.

The Venue opened in 2019.  Mercado said the atmosphere of the 200-seat listening room is casual. Most sit around tables, and food and drink are available, and the offerings are intentionally eclectic.

“Everyone says, you know, you can’t be all things to all people," she said. "But you can try. And our main goal was to expose this community to genres of music, or music in general, that they otherwise might not be exposed to, and to make it affordable.”

Mercado said the number one priority is that everything on its stage be well produced with good sound. She said the foundation also wants to reach out with open mic nights and workshops.   

The Venue is right across a pedestrian alley from the longtime community theater Riverfront Playhouse, and just a couple of blocks from the Paramount Theatre.

Mercado said The Venue fills a niche the Paramount, with its full-scale Broadway shows, does not.

What we are doing is vastly different from an 1800-seat live performance theater," she said. "They do some musical events but it’s a completely different vibe.”

Melissa Mercado in front of the stage at The Venue
Credit Guy Stephens

  

Marissa Amoni is the manager of Aurora Downtown, a nonprofit comprised of business and local property owners seeking to promote the area. She thought The Venue was a great addition to the downtown. She said it’s part of a resurgence in the area.

“The entertainment aspect," she said, "has really been enabling us to build a brand -- downtown Aurora -- that’s unique in the area, especially the Fox Valley area.”  

Amoni said the seeds were planted a decade or so ago with creation of an Art Walk, First Fridays and other events. She said a big step was the Paramount starting its series of in-house productions of full-scale Broadway musicals around that time.

“We really needed that synergy happening," she said. "You know, that really assisted in bringing people down. There was really a reason now for them to come to downtown Aurora.”

Another recent addition is the Paramount School of the Arts, housed in the new Paramount Arts Center next door to the Paramount Theatre. Andrea Pikscher is the education and community engagement coordinator for the Center and School. She said its classes offer a unique experience for students. 

“We’ve been really lucky," she said, "that some of the artists that perform at the Paramount, work at the Paramount, will come to the school and they’ve worked with our students. And so our students not only get access to arts education, but they’re getting access to arts education from people who are doing it for a living.”

And, Pikscher thought, collaboration with The Venue could lead to more opportunities.

“Definitely it would be super exciting," she said, "to take our students over to The Venue sometime and show them artists that are performing there, or maybe they can do an open mic there. I mean, definitely, there are lots of possibilities.”

Marissa Amoni
Credit Latrice Murphy/courtesy Aurora Downtown

  

Of course, the arts aren’t the only thing going on. The casino has been a fixture for decades. But while it has been a source of jobs and revenue, it never sparked a revival of downtown. The city has been encouraging, and in recent years, encouraged by, business, residential and retail development downtown, with some projects completed and others on the way.

Amoni said showcasing the arts as a focal point is important, and not just because it brings in those out-of-town dollars. It’s important for this city, too.

“We see more people downtown," she said. "More people investing in downtown. A better experience for people. And then that results in a healthy community.”

And one with a shared vision that, for Aurora, and especially its downtown, the arts matter.

Prop oversized guitar used in a Paramount Theatre production and donated to The Venue. Visiting artists have signed it.
Credit Guy Stephens