IBJ: You were honored this year by the Greater Belleville Area Chamber of Commerce for your years spent on Art on the Square. That was a real honor for you, wasn’t it?
Gregory: It always takes a whole community and a village to put the show together. I was honored by that, it is a great community award.
IBJ: When did you first become involved in this and how did it happen?
Gregory: I’m still in the same position as I was in 2001. I had worked on large activities and art shows while raising funds for the Junior Service Club of St. Clair County. I always thought Belleville would be a great place to have an art show. There previously had been an art show in Belleville in the early ‘80s, a fine art event created by two women, Joan Meyer and Joan Voss Renner. It was very successful for two years. When Joan (Renner) died, the art fair was discontinued.
We have a gorgeous downtown and fabulous venue around the Veterans Memorial Fountain. Seventeen years ago, the mayor, who at that time was Mark Kern, invited some people over to his home and that’s how Art on the Square was created.
IBJ: Where did you go from there?
Gregory: A group of 30 women and architects put all aspects of the show together in 10 months. Meanwhile, 20 Junior Service girls were selling “art cash” to all their friends. We sell art cash gift certificates all year long and the program is one of the largest in the entire country. We usually sell over $125,000 worth of art cash gift certificates before the show even opens. The event organization, publicity and art cash sales have made it successful.
IBJ: Much of the event is paid for by sponsorships, isn’t it?
Gregory: Yes, this event and all our community art collaborations would not happen without sponsors. The first show cost us $98,000 to produce. The cost is now $385,000, so we certainly appreciate our sponsors!
IBJ: What happens to the money that is raised?
Gregory: A lot of it goes to advertising, close to $75,000 a year out of that budget. We also have $275,000 to $300,000 in in-kind marketing value from various media sponsors.
IBJ: Are you set up as a nonprofit?
Gregory: Yes, we are a 501(c)(3)
IBJ: So technically you have to break even?
Gregory: Monies raised go to our outreach programming and show itself. In 2003, we started the Artist in Residence program with five schools. Now, we pay artists to teach at 10 to 12 schools. We write grants to bring in sculpture exhibits and provide workshops and instructors for special needs children and adults.
In 2007, we started the Sculpture in the City program. I thought about what we could do visually to differentiate our town from other communities. To date, we have had 58 pieces of sculpture donated from community members, organizations, private families and Art on the Square, placed in the city of Belleville.
IBJ: And that helps differentiate Belleville from most other towns?
Gregory: Visually, yes. In 2010, we were approached by the law firm of Mathis, Marifian & Richter. They wanted to develop an educational program in the schools. So, the High School Sculpture in the City program was born. A juried sculpture artist is sent to one of the Belleville High Schools. Belleville East and West welding department work with the art students and artist to design and make the sculpture. Althoff and Governor French Academy usually work with fiberglass, for outside sculpture placement.
Our AOTS high school exhibit encompasses 43 Southern Illinois high schools. We send invitation to the schools who jury the pieces. We have anywhere from 250 to 325 high school artists in our exhibit. Art on the Square gives away $5,000 in prizes to the high school exhibit itself, plus Lindenwood University - Belleville, offers $250,000 in scholarships. Both programs are included in our community outreach.
IBJ: Art on the Square has been nationally recognized for several years. What led to this?
Gregory: Our committee was determined to be one of the best, top-tier shows in the country. So how do you get someone to apply to a show that’s an unknown entity? Well, you go to art shows across the country and talk to artists. The first year we had 275 entries — and I think we met every one. Now, we have upward of 800 to 1,000 artists apply. Artists like to know if a community supports the arts. Belleville has always been involved in arts and culture and education. We do have the second oldest philharmonic in the nation.
Reading surveys of art shows and what artists, sponsors, volunteers and patrons needed showed us what was important. We knew we had to provide art that’s of high quality, and with a diverse population, we have different price points. A $100 pair of earrings will sell next to a $10,000 piece of sculpture. Our community show is geared to all of these elements, they are all intertwined together.
IBJ: What is the show’s national ranking based on?
Gregory: The rankings are based on sales, and for the last 10 years we have been No. 1 in the country six times and No. 2 four times.
IBJ: That’s quite a statement, and these artists come from all over the world, too, don’t they?
Gregory: They do. This year we have artists that will be coming from Argentina, England, Belgium and Israel, along with all across the United States. We usually take 100 to 105 because some artists may need a double booth. This year, we got our first application from Alaska, the only state we haven’t had an application from in 17 years!
IBJ: Some of your supporters have been around a while.
Gregory: Allsup is our Presentation Sponsor and they have been magnificent to work with all these years. The City of Belleville helps produce the show. We’ve had one person in the community who has donated the $30,000 in prize money. This person has done it every year for 17 years as an anonymous donor.
IBJ: Is this an all-year process to stage this?
Gregory: Several committee members take off the month of June Then, we start all over again. It’s a massive undertaking.
IBJ: How many people do you actually have help you?
Gregory: We have over 50 people on our committee and 600 volunteers the weekend of Art on the Square.
IBJ: I know you get visitors from all over the country. Does this fill up the hotels?
Gregory: We usually average 75,000 to 85,000 depending on weather. The Americans for the Arts studies a variety of cities. In each of the last 10 years, we’ve sold $1 million to $1.5 million in art during Art on the Square.That’s an economic impact of $2.5 million to $3.5 million (per year). Belleville, St. Clair County and the state of Illinois receive the sales taxes from all art sales and residual spending including hotels, motels, food and gas purchases.
IBJ: Is there anything new this year that you’re going to debut?
Gregory: We have several new fun things that are going to happen. We started two years ago with a project called Rails, Trails and Art. Through the generosity of UMB Bank, we were able to start a program where special sculptures will be produced. Local sculpture artists and they have been going into schools and they are designing and drawing sculptures to be placed as mile markers on the bicycle trail between Belleville Memorial station and Scott Air Force Base. Some are even 15-feet high. We will be unveiling these at this year’s show. And there’s going to be a scavenger hunt. The sculptures are going to be hidden in various areas at the show. Kids who find them can tell us where they want them on the bicycle trail.
I do have to tell you one other thing that no other show in the country has. We started, seven years ago, an interior design stage at Art on the Square. For the last five years, HGTV Design Star winners use art from the art show to show how to use it in your home. It’s very popular. This year we have Jennifer Bertrand coming from Kansas City. She’ll be doing five workshops from the stage and in between we’ll have local designers presenting.
IBJ: What is the theme this year?
Gregory: This year our theme is a Royal Affair at Art on the Square because (royal couple) Megan and Harry are getting married on May 19. We’ll have a royal court activity area in our Children’s Garden of Art. That is going to be great for families and for kids. They’ll have a lot of “make it and take it” projects with a royal flair. Royal crowns, royal goblets, royal self-portraits, building castles (and more). This is all sponsored by Associated Bank.
IBJ: How many food vendors?
Gregory: Twelve, we have a great food court. We also have a wine court, with all kinds of jazz music and entertainment.
Editor’s note: Art on the Square is May 18-20 in downtown Belleville.