By MATT SANDERS
When the Arts Council of Southeast Missouri started its First Friday gallery receptions years ago, it was not just the big kid on the block, it was the only one.
At that time, the council and its galleries were some of the few spots where local residents could go to see a permanent display of art. But in the past year alone, several competitors have sprung up in Cape Girardeau, built on the effort of local artists.
The upstart galleries and artist groups have created friendly competition for the Arts Council.
"We really welcome the competition," said Margaret Dement, who runs community relations for the Arts Council. "But it's not really competition because we're all part of the same arts community.
"Right now the Arts Council wants to inspire and create art and new programs that include everyone in the community."
Within the past year several galleries and studios were started, adding diversity to the city's arts offerings.
The Fountain Street Gallery, a venue for abstract and contemporary art; the Edward Bernard Gallery, a showcase for high-quality glass art; The Artist Studio, a studio offering workshops owned by local art teacher Judy Barks-Westrich; Buckner Brewing Co.'s Riverview Room, where art shows take place frequently; and Fusion Glassworks Studio, a glass-making showcase studio owned by Michael Guard, have all come on the scene.
So have new artist groups like the Modest Living Artists.
Now when people want to take in some art on the first Friday of each month, they have several places to choose from.
"We almost have our own Cape Girardeau art walk," said Claudia Reudiger, chair of the Arts Council's board of directors. "It's starting to spread, and there's an excitement because people literally do go from venue to venue."
Reudiger said when she greets people at the Arts Council First Fridays, they inevitably ask for directions to the other galleries.
"From the perspective of the Arts Council, we do see a growing excitement and a working together of various arts groups. People are not working in isolation. ... We are an art community," Reudiger said.
Craig Thomas is a prominent local artist and member of the local Visual Arts Cooperative, the largest artist cooperative in the area. Thomas said the cooperative, which celebrates its third anniversary in March, constantly has a waiting list for artists to be juried in to the organization.
Currently the cooperative has 40 members.
"The number never falls, and it usually grows," Thomas said. Thomas himself will be opening a new gallery soon, to add to Cape Girardeau's own burgeoning "art walk."
"Of course, in Cape if you hit them all you're not going to be walking," Thomas joked.
The growing interest in the arts in Cape Girardeau can also be seen in the increasing success of arts-oriented events. One of the most visible examples is the Arts Council's ArtsCape festival.
In 2005, ArtsCape's fifth year, the festival changed from its venue downtown to a new home in Capaha Park, in part to make room for more activities, more artisans and more visitors. Attendance went up by about 200 for the one-day festival, pushing that number to around 2,000. This year organizers are expecting an even bigger turnout.
The festival focuses on a family-oriented approach to the arts by providing entertainment for children. But ArtsCape also showcases the talents of local artists and musicians like no other event in the city.
"This coming year we actually have the entire Capaha Park reserved," Reudiger said. "We're already getting all kinds of inquiries from art vendors because so many people have heard about it."
Another arts event that experienced huge growth in 2005 was the Tunes at Twilight concert series. Tunes at Twilight brings in regional and national independent acoustic acts on Friday evenings in the summer. Last year the series shattered previous records for attendance with more than 2,500 people in attendance, according to Arts Council estimates. The figure is about double the number of people who attended in 2004.
But if local people are going out to see touring acts, they're also piling in to bars and other venues to see local musicians. On any given night someone is playing for the public somewhere in downtown Cape Girardeau, offering styles ranging from blues to rock to punk to metal.
Teenagers can catch alternative bands in a drug-free, smoke-free environment at The Enchanted Forest on Broadway, while their middle-age counterparts can see an acoustic show and relax with a glass of wine at the Cup 'n' Cork Cafe on Main Street.
Those who want to hear the "high art" of classical music can check out the Southeast Symphony Orchestra or one of the Sundays at Three concerts that bring crowds to Old St. Vincent's Church.
Meanwhile, the River City Players community theater group continues to perform for the delight of residents in its permanent home at the River City Yacht Club.
Variety and volume are increasing in the visual arts and the performing arts, and more growth seems to be on the horizon. The arts community is rallying around the prospect of the River Campus opening in 2007. Numerous artists like Thomas think the new facility will make the arts even more visible in Cape Girardeau and the region.
The Department of Theatre and Dance and the Department of Music at Southeast Missouri State University can't wait for the new venue to serve as a showcase for their newly formed musical theater program.
Speaking as a consumer of the arts, Reudiger said she's seen the growth in all areas in Cape Girardeau, and she only expects that growth to continue.
"It's amazing the talent that is here and the talent we haven't even seen yet," Reudiger said.
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