PEORIA — The Peoria Art Guild is back from the near-dead.

The 140-year-old organization, which suffered greatly after the 2011 economic downturn dried up art funding all over the country, is once again hosting exhibits and offering an interesting selection of classes at its offices in the Peoria Warehouse District.

The rebirth began early this year under the direction of Shannon Cox, the first director employed by the guild since Beth Reusch was let go in a series of cost-cutting measures in 2015.

“The first thing I did was to become more connected with the local artists,” said Cox, who once ran the now-defunct Speakeasy Art Center in Pekin. “There is so much going on in the Peoria art community, and we all have to work together to succeed.”

Cox sees the guild as a hub for the art community, and she’s working to create a mutual give-and-take relationship with local artists which will benefit everyone. The guild promotes these artists who, in-turn, do things like teach classes which generate funds to keep the guild running.

Cox is also promoting the guild as a place where arts groups can gather for events or meetings, or simply to make art.

“Right now I’m having great conversations with local fiber-arts groups about having their meeting here. We are trying to figure out a project space for working together and teaching. And that includes 4H — we are hoping to create an area where they can learn to sew. And I have a filmmakers group that’s going to be meeting here,” she said.

Not only does the guild expose the community to art, it also provides an experience, like a night out during First Friday exhibitions. The guild began participating in the monthly tour in January with a display of art in the guild’s collection. The next month they exhibited artwork by trompe l'oeil ceramicist Tim Kwolzak, who later came back to teach a class. For the June First Friday, Ann E. Coulter exhibited paintings from her series “The Woods” in the main gallery, while artwork created by the Creative Arts Discovery Club, a program for children, was on display in the basement classroom space.

“Parents and grandparents come in to see the children’s exhibit, then they see the exhibit in the main gallery, and hopefully they will enjoy it and come back,” said Cox.

Today the guild is functioning, for the most part, without public grants and corporate sponsorships, said Cox.

“Our budget this year has been tricky because we have to be self-sustaining. Classes have to be scheduled in such a way that they pay for each other,” she said.

Everyone has rolled up their sleeves and taken an active role in running the guild. Board members tend bar during First Friday and hang artwork for exhibits. On a recent weekday, Peoria Art Guild Fine Art Fair co-director Kim Sanders was re-touching the finish on a pair of wooden benches in the gallery.

“I have to do it a little bit at a time because the fumes get to me,” she said.

The guild was fortunate to have a dedicated board of directors to keep the organization going during the dark years, said Cox.

“They worked hard. They kept the Fine Art Fair running and re-built our finances,” said Cox.

The Fine Art Fair has been key to the Guild's rebirth. The long-running event, which attracts artists from all over the country, brings thousands of people who dine, enjoy live music, and spend money on original artwork. Though classes and exhibits were suspended for long periods of time during the quiet years, the highly successful fair has been held every year. The money generated has helped the Art Guild rebuild.

Cox and Sanders first became involved with the guild last year when they took on the challenge of running the Fine Art Fair. In November, when the Art Guild Board offered the director’s position to Cox, she was delighted.

“I am having the time of my life.” 

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.