A Canton organization is expanding access to the arts in Fulton County

A Canton organization hopes to expand interest in the arts in Fulton County.

Fulton County Arts co-founder Chris Rabe said they started the organization because their local farmers market was produce-only, meaning artists couldn’t be included.

The volunteer-run organization hosts art fairs that give artists of all media a place to present and sell their work.

“We also include nonprofits, so different human service organizations,” Rabe said. “We found that their mission is really close to ours and that they want to reach out to members of the community, and you know how they reach out to them?” Rural areas are very scattered. So we thought it was a great opportunity for everyone to come together: non-profits, community members [and] artists.”

Co-founder Derek Doyle said the only rule is that the art on display at the fair is man-made. Mediums on display range from tie dye to painting to gardening. There is no fee to participate in the fair.

They have hosted 12 reunions so far and say this is their most successful year since they started in 2019.

Doyle said people often don’t know what to expect from gatherings.

“It either had to be a fire show or it had to be casual like a vendor’s flea market show, there was no in between,” he said. “And we’re like, no, it’s possible and it’s going to be free. We won’t charge you for reviewing apps. And this is a difficult concept for many people.

Rabe and Doyle said they want to gain more public support for the organization and the arts in general. They host public forums for community action to hear feedback and share their message.

“It’s looking at art again as a community asset rather than a form of entertainment,” Doyle said. “I think that’s been our biggest struggle with trying to communicate with the community. So to get them on board, it’s more of a communication barrier.”

The Shoppes at Grand Prairie donated a storefront to serve as their physical location. They display work by local artists on the site.

Rabe said access to resources is often the biggest struggle for the arts in rural communities.

“There is a lot of poverty, which is actually related to our mission. And that was something we recognized when rural areas didn’t have as many resources, people were spread out widely,” she said. “So to have people come to our event and have the art desk, which is another project we’ve had recently, where it’s just a free range of different media that anyone can explore right then and there.”

Doyle said raising enough money to sustain the gatherings has also been difficult for the organization. They initially set out to organize the fairs monthly and hope to return to that.

Grants through groups like Illinois Humanities help. Partnerships like the one they have with the Illinois Art Station expand their reach.

Illinois Art Station is a statewide group based in Normal that offers classes for all ages.

Executive director Hannah Johnson said people believe the arts will always be there, and that mentality could lead to their disappearance.

“There seems to be a kind of ubiquity, maybe it’s an assumption that the arts will always be there,” Johnson said. “And so there hasn’t been as much deliberate effort on the part of the municipal level or otherwise to continue to strengthen it.”

Illinois Art Station Executive Director Hannah Johnson and Education Coordinator Joey Hatch.

Central Illinois has many opportunities for people to access the arts, but transportation and geographic barriers make it difficult to expand them to rural communities across the state.

“When you think about population density, there’s not always that critical mass that makes sure these initiatives are sustainable,” Johnson said. “So there might be an artist and a community who can do as much as they can, right, but this is one person who wants to support an entire sector.”

Education Coordinator Joey Hatch said creating and interacting with art is beneficial for people of all ages, but is especially important for younger children.

“It’s about the learning process. It’s about learning that if I mix those two colors together and do that again and again and again, I’m always going to get the same results,” she said. “It’s about learning some of those really early literacy skills that we don’t even think about.”

Hatch said something as simple as learning the top and bottom of a piece of paper helps kids with vocabulary and lays the foundation for the future. She said exposing children to art when they are young means they will continue to seek it out.

People interact with art on a daily basis, but may not realize they are doing so.

“They have these great backpacks. They read great comics or all the videos and stuff they watch. It’s all touched by an artist in some way,” she said. “And so exposing kids to artists who come from areas like them, who look like them, who think like them, who are into the same great things. Being exposed to these cool art tools and being exposed to these cool art people. It’s a long road to happiness.”

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