The Waukegan Park District Cultural Arts Division (CAD) is an award winning arts organization that has been providing performing arts and arts programming in Waukegan since September 1964. In its fifty years of existence, the artistic mission of the Center has been to provide high quality arts education to our students and exceptional performances to the audiences. The CAD provides an outstanding and nurturing environment for students, professional artists and educators. New options are created annually to give our community new opportunities and choices in the arts. Due to the demographics and the economy in Waukegan, the Center provides a number of scholarships, as well as, free or low-cost programs including free student admission to the symphony, reduced rates for the theatre productions, free arts activities in the parks such as movies and blues in the park, Summer H*E*A*T* and ARTS PARK, as well as cultural activities including Tanabata, a fine arts festival, and a cemetery walk. The programs remain educationally based with an emphasis on quality learning and expression in all disciplines of the arts.
The Waukegan Park District historically has been a strong supporter of the arts because we have had the opportunity to learn from some pretty amazing examples such as Jack Benny, Ray Bradbury and Jane Addams. Waukegan Park District is proud to be a strategic partner with the Waukegan Arts Council.
The Music Center of Lake County was established in 1964 as a not-for-profit corporation offering instruction in music. In 1974, the name was changed to the Jack Benny Center for the Arts, not only to honor the memory of one of its early supporters but also to better reflect the diverse arts the Center offered. The Waukegan Symphony Orchestra was established in 1974 and the Waukegan Concert Chorus in 1976, both under the umbrella of the Jack Benny Center for the Arts. In 1982, the Jack Benny Center and the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra and Concert Chorus (WSOCC) became the Cultural Arts Division of the Waukegan Park District, a municipal governmental body.
Waukegan Symphony Orchestra (WSO) had its first concert on April 24, 1974 when favorite son Jack Benny returned to his hometown as the headliner in the event. Like the Music Center of Lake County, WSO is synonymous with the broad range of cultural activities that the hallmark of our city. Through its thirty-nine year history, the orchestra has engaged its audiences in both traditional and challenging works. Musical direction rests in the capable hands of Maestro Stephen Blackwelder who has brought new energy and focus to the organization since 2001. In 2010 WSO began hosting children and families who are “treated” to a wonderful family/young people’s concert “a la Leonard Bernstein”. This event is free to children and students with an adult ticket costing $5. Families, church and scout groups take advantage of this program.
Waukegan Concert Chorus (WCC) was established as a community chorus in 1976 to sing with the WSO performance of Verdi’s Requiem. Members of the community recognized the great benefit of retaining such a cultural asset in the community and the Chorus continued as an independent sister organization to the orchestra and is now under the direction of Randy Casey.
The members of the community-based Waukegan Symphony Orchestra and Concert Chorus perform a “Do It Yourself” Messiah 1.31″with the assistance of local churches, their choir members and professional musicians and vocalists. The “Joseph A. Favero Memorial-Do It Yourself Messiah” is now in its sixth year and continues to grow in audience members. The district has formed a strong partnership with two local churches that provide space, music stands, and timpani.
The Bowen Park Theatre Company’s (BPTC) first production was in 1987 at approximately the same time as the beginning of the Bowen Park Opera. The objective was to produce classical drama and comedies as well as, new works: avoiding musicals and the repertory of neighboring theatre groups. Bowen Park Opera Company had its roots to the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra performances in the mid-1980s. Upon completion of the then new facility, the first Bowen Park Opera Company performance was Holst’s The Wandering Scholar and Mozart’s The Impresario in the spring of 1987. Operas were conducted in English to make the experience open to the entire community. Due to budget constraints and lack of community support, the Opera closed in the spring of 2010. Staff continue to seek a sponsor interested in bringing the opera back to life. The Center began a partnership with Compass Creative Dramatics in the spring of 2013 to provide summer and spring “drama camps” for the children of the community. The Center also works with the North Chicago Center for the Arts on staged readings and performances by local and regional actors.
In 1994, the CAD became responsible for the programs of the city’s historic district. The operation and restoration of the Haines Museum, now known as the Waukegan History Museum, in Bowen Park was only a part of the CAD’s charge. Programs were developed and the Bowen Heritage Circle began. Bowen Heritage Circle specializes in traditional and special interest crafts and lectures. The Waukegan Historical Society rents a building that houses the Waukegan History Museum for $1 per year and library space at Lilac Cottage. The society maintains the collections and the park district provides the organization with a museum supervisor, support for an intern, and building maintenance. Each year since 1995, the center works with the Waukegan Historical Society to bring the community’s past to life with the Oakwood Cemetery Walk. This cultural and historical event’s popularity has brought some changes that have included traditional craft demonstrations, storytellers, and musicians. Local businesses have stepped up providing sponsorship money to help keep this event going.
In 2011, the Illinois Association of Park Districts and the Arts Alliance Illinois named the WPD Cultural Arts Division Best of the Best for Arts in the Parks. This award was based on the entire programming offered by the Jack Benny Center for the Arts. In October of 2012, the National Recreation and Parks Association honored the Waukegan Park District Cultural Arts Division’s “Summer Arts in the Park” as one of the most innovative and effective arts and humanities programs program across the nation. The “Summer Arts in the Park” programming has developed from a single special event at Bowen Park in the summer of 2000 to celebrate the start of summer to an ongoing chain of summer events that have grown over the past few years. The seasonal free programs called “Summer Arts in the Parks” now extend past the boundaries of Bowen Park and have moved into several parks throughout the district.
Starting on the first Saturday in June with Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” Fine Arts Festival and after school has ended brings the start of Summer H*E*A*T* (*History, *Earth, *Arts, & *Tales). Children at the Bowen playground are invited to join in to learn a bit about history, take a “Wonder Walk” to explore nature, enjoy a sing-along with a children’s musician, participate in a urban drum circle, or hear a tall tale. Tanabata, held annually for the past six years, is celebrated on July 7 at Lilac Cottage and honors the Japanese fable of two star-crossed lovers. Other free programs include the monthly Movies in the Park, which provide family-friendly movies and Bowen Blues, a free monthly concert that appeals to both young and old. ARTS PARK, which began in the summer of 2011, is the traveling Cultural Arts van loaded with paints, easels, and art supplies, that visits neighborhood parks in each of the Waukegan Park District’s six planning areas on Thursday mornings. Added to the arts line-up include: Poetry in the Park which is held in Roosevelt Park once a month during the summer and the Comcast Literary Arts and Digital Photography Lab conducted at the Jack Benny Center for the Arts. The Cultural Arts Division has a number of sponsors who help make it possible to offer free “Summer Arts in the Park” programs to the residents of Waukegan Park District. Partial sponsorship of the Cultural Arts programs is through a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, an agency of the State of Illinois.
The center began providing programs in its Comcast Literary Arts and Digital Photography lab in the summer of 2012. Young people have been offered the opportunity to learn the digital camera, be introduced to software designed to enhance photos, and assist in the design of a nature book that shows threatened and endangered species in the park. The Literary Arts component gives young people an avenue for improving their writing skills and then takes those writings to Poetry in the Park, a spoken word program that began in 2012 or to display their writing in the Bulldog Clip Gallery.
The halls of the Center act as an exhibition space and as host for two-juried visual arts exhibitions for the Lake County Art League. The remainder of the year the walls hold the artwork of Lake County Art League and feature ethnically diverse artists from throughout the county. These shows are often both educational and professional, and serve our artist community’s needs. The quality of the shows is generally very high at the Center, in part because it is one of the best non-gallery exhibition opportunities afforded area artists. The Center annually hosts a local high school photo exhibit, a one-month elementary/middle school exhibit; a parochial school exhibit; and the remainder of the year allows for individual artists to display. The schools curate their own shows. Each year the League hires a professional artist of merit to adjudicate works by members in the League’s two juried shows. A “pop up” gallery named the Bulldog Clip gallery has been placed in the lower level of the center for elementary to high school student art and poetry. The CAD has a visual arts facility suitable for education, but it is not as an exhibit space.
Annually, the Division employs approximately 32 visual and performing arts educators, over 45 actors, 20 professional instrumentalists, a minimum of 8 directors, designers and technical theatre staff. Indigenous dancers from Chicago teach Pre-Columbian dance to our residents and perform at CAD events. Programming provides opportunities for over 200 amateur musicians, actors and visual artists a place to exhibit and perform.
About the Waukegan Park District
Established on December 26, 1916, the district has 47 properties and 720 acres of land, which includes 18-hole Bonnie Brook and 9-hole Greenshire Golf Courses. The District operates the Field House Sports and Fitness Center, the Jack Benny Center for the Arts, the Waukegan SportsPark, the Waukegan Skate Park, the Waukegan BMX Track, recreational centers, an outdoor swimming pool, outdoor sports fields, picnic areas, playgrounds, and sports courts including basketball and tennis. A full range of programs and services are offered year round for all ages from infants to seniors and special populations are included. Many special events are offered throughout the year, many are complimentary. Cultural events are provided by the Waukegan Symphony Orchestra and Concert Chorus, the Bowen Park Theatre Company, and the Waukegan History Museum. The award-winning District employs 54 full-time staff and over 250 part-time, year round, seasonal, and temporary employees. The District is a member of the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), Illinois Association of Park Districts (IAPD), and Illinois Park and Recreation Association (IPRA). The district maintains national accreditation from the NRPA Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies (CAPRA), the Illinois Association of Park Districts’ (IAPD) Distinguished Agency accreditation and the Park District Risk Management Agency (PDRMA) accreditation and sustains a Level A Loss Control Program. The district was named a NRPA Gold Medal Finalist in 2012 and 2013.