1/11/2020 9:04:00 AM Small Illinois town gets nat'l grant funding for concert series
By NICK VLAHOS Journal Star
GALVA, Ill. (AP) — Pink-ribboned wooden stakes that outline where a performance stage is to be constructed might make Wiley Park look like a field of dreams.
But the proposed 900-square-foot concrete pad in the Galva public park is expected to become a reality this year. Ideally, it’ll be completed in time for the third annual edition of the Levitt AMP Galva Music Series.
The grant-funded series of 10 free weekly concerts in each of the past two years has attracted thousands to this city of about 2,500 located equidistant from Peoria and Moline.
Shows that feature national touring acts from multiple musical genres have been conducted on spring and summer Sundays on a temporary stage in Wiley Park, situated a few blocks northwest of downtown. The 2020 series is to begin May 31.
Last summer, spurred in part by the success of the concert series, the Galva City Council approved contributing $25,000 toward permanent-stage construction. Fundraising is underway to finance a roof, which is expected to cost another $50,000.
It’s a major undertaking for the community. But in this case, people already have come.
All city officials and concert-series organizers need to do now is build it.
“It’s hard to commit to that kind of money, because No. 1, you don’t know if you’re going to get the grant every year,” said Galva Mayor Rich Volkert, an initial concert-series skeptic. “It wasn’t anything against the (organizers), it was just a matter of there’s only so much money to go around.
“The fact is, you have to reward somebody for their hard work.”
Much of that hard work was done by someone who doesn’t even live in Galva. Someone who began this chain of events by playing host to concerts in his house.
“It’s all John,” Galva Arts Council President Amy Martin said about John Taylor, the concert-series chief.
From his residence in the Henry County seat of Cambridge, about 16 miles northwest of Galva, Taylor works remotely for the U.S. Department of Defense. But music appears to be his muse — so much so that he built a small stage in a room in his home.
About 40 people can fit. Taylor said he’s booked everything from local children just getting started in music to Grammy-quality performers.
An emphasis has been on acts that tend not to perform in farm country.
“I think it’s neat for people to experience something new,” Taylor said. “It’s almost like watching a magic trick. It feels good.”
But expanding that good feeling was becoming a problem.
“I was trying to reach more people with the music and realized that holding the concerts at my house was a little bit of a barrier,” Taylor said. “A stranger might think it kind of odd to go to someone’s house they don’t know to see a concert.”
At that time, Taylor was taking a graduate-level class in grant writing. As a class exercise, he had to find an organization from which to ask for a grant.
Through an internet search, Taylor discovered the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation. And unexpectedly, the grant request became an extracurricular proposition.
Founded by late husband-and-wife philanthropists from New York, the foundation distributes money to organizations that support the arts, culture and education.
Matching grants of $25,000 are awarded annually to communities of fewer than 400,000 residents. Admission isn’t charged for the concerts the grant funds. Venues can’t have permanent seating.
The grants must be channeled through a not-for-profit organization. Enter the arts council, which has existed in Galva for 30 years.
The arts council conducts monthly music programs and open-microphone nights, among other events. Taylor’s wife, Stephanie Taylor, is council vice president.
“I was trying to figure out where I could get the most support and also where I felt like it could have the most impact,” Taylor said. “Out of all the different places I looked around, Galva was the most obvious answer.”
Martin and other board members appeared to be on board with the Taylors’ plan from its beginning.
“We loved the idea of giving families something to do in the summer,” Martin said about the series that debuted in 2018. “That was the really cool thing, that it was a family-friendly event where all ages are welcome.”
A group of about two dozen helps organize and operate the concerts. Galva is the only Levitt-grant community in which all the local personnel are volunteers.
The 20 shows staged over the past two years have attracted a total audience of about 15,000, John Taylor said. Music and performance styles are diverse.
Among those who have played Wiley Park are folk singer/Delavan native Cody Diekhoff, also known as Chicago Farmer; zydeco performers C.J. Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band; blues artist Samantha Fish; and Gangstagrass, a band that fuses bluegrass music and rap.
“That was probably as well received as any of them,” Volkert said.
Musical groups from Ireland, Peru and Scotland also have performed as part of the concert series.
According to Taylor, the Galva group hasn’t had to twist too many arms to convince musicians to visit.
“For them, it’s something special because of the hospitality they receive here,” Taylor said. “It’s a different sort of response than they get playing in a big city. It’s a very intimate experience.”
It also appears to be a worthwhile experience for Galva residents who want their city to stop shriveling.
Departures of industrial firms and downturns in the agricultural economy have contributed to a Galva population decrease from its peak of about 3,200, achieved 40 years ago. Empty storefronts downtown aren’t rare.
“Growing up, I heard from my father and grandparents about how the Galva downtown used to just thrive on Friday and Saturday nights,” said Jason Bates, the concert-series vice president. “You couldn’t even find a parking spot.
“By bringing this into our town, you’re doing a few things. One, you’re creating a great social and cultural experience and making family memories for the people here. But also, you’re giving a major reason for people to travel here with their families.”
According to Bates, the concerts have attracted attendees from Peoria, the Quad Cities, Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa, among other places.
“We get to sell Galva,” Volkert said.
The Levitt foundation appears sold. Of the 20 communities, including Springfield, that received grants announced last month, only three were smaller than Galva.
But the Galva volunteers are preparing just in case there’s a time when a grant won’t be forthcoming.
The city recently purchased the Galva Opera House, a fading downtown building constructed in 1878. Activities to which the building played host included live theater, a roller rink and high school basketball games.
“It’s got some history to it,” Volkert said. “If we didn’t save it, it wouldn’t be there a year from now.”
The mayor envisions a rehabilitation, at a cost of at least $250,000, that would allow Levitt-type concerts to be held indoors in autumn and winter.
As for the Wiley Park venue, it will be able to accommodate weddings and other special events, Martin said. She also plans to expand non-music offerings concurrent with Levitt concerts, including food trucks, art displays and yoga.
Regardless of grant status, then, it appears the Galva contingent is prepared to go the distance in at least somewhat-perfect harmony.
“We’re not going to be able to get the same kind of touring musicians we get with the grant money, but we can still get good music,” Martin said. “John has so many connections. The people who play at his house are pretty dang good.
“People are willing to donate their time. The arts council has survived 30 years with volunteers. I think that says that even if we don’t get this grant, we still want to keep doing it.”