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M.F.A. alums become engines for art in Central Illinois

Lisa Lofgren

Lisa Lofgren in Main Gallery 404

The Central Illinois art scene is benefiting from the entrepreneurial spirit of two Illinois State alums: printmaker Lisa Lofgren, M.F.A. ’12, and painter Jeff Robinson, M.F.A. ’11.

Lofgren, a Wyoming transplant, owns a commercial art gallery and runs a community print shop and studio in downtown Bloomington. Robinson has brought dozens of established and emerging artists to his hometown as director of the University of Illinois Springfield’s (UIS) Visual Arts Gallery and of the alternative art space DEMO Project.

They juggle those efforts while pursuing their main passion—creating their own art.

“I think some people have a romantic notion of what it is to be an artist where you just have this wonderful life of making a painting while drinking a glass of wine with friends surrounding you and everyone laughing,” 30-year-old Robinson said. “There is this business side to it. There is this hustle side to it. It is exhausting. It is certainly not lucrative.”

Lofgren took over the 7-year-old Main Gallery 404 in January 2013 after the previous owners retired. She now orchestrates a roster of 40-plus local artists and solely operates a gallery that is open more than 30 hours a week. The business is profitable despite operating in a region that, while rich in artists, lacks a strong buying market.

“I don’t find myself to be very business minded. It’s been a huge challenge for me,” said Lofgren, who is 28. “I really like selling artwork. I also find it frustrating.”

Robinson is free of commercial demands at the two galleries he directs but has his own challenges. For example, he sparked controversy early last year when he brought the Chicago-based art collaborative Industry of the Ordinary to the UIS campus.

Jeff Robinson

Jeff Robinson in front of the installation he created for a show at the UIS gallery

The group’s installation centered on a gun—unloaded, of course. It was set on a kitchen table in the gallery and encased in 100 pounds of butter. Two heaters were turned on below the table so that the gun would be revealed slowly over time.

“We expected the kickback to be from the gun. Instead the heat was really from the butter,” he said. “It ended up smelling terribly. We got a lot of blowback.”

Robinson co-founded DEMO Project with UIS gallery manager Allison Lacher so emerging artists would have a venue to exhibit interesting work. The gallery operates on a shoestring budget out of a bungalow that the Springfield Art Association provides rent free.

“It’s really just this project—much like your studio practice as an artist—that you do that you don’t necessarily get any guarantee for compensation, but you do it because you love doing it and it benefits the community,” he said.

Both Lofgren and Robinson also love teaching art. Lofgren is an adjunct professor at Eureka College and runs printmaking workshops out of her studio in cometogetherspace.

“It definitely becomes this dance of not giving away all of your time and still focus on the thing that I am most passionate about and thrive on, which is making art and teaching art out of my studio,” Lofgren said.

Robinson teaches art full time at UIS. He credits Illinois State’s M.F.A. program for giving him teaching experience not offered at most art schools and the painting professors with showing him how the professional art world works.

“They really helped me to understand what it is to be outside of the protective bubble of the academic and student art world,” he said. “And to know what it takes to educate me on what contemporary art is and to help me get a better understanding of that hustle I was talking about: How do you get shows? How do you look for shows? How do you establish connections?”

Lofgren last showed her work this summer at the McLean County Arts Center, and Robinson recently exhibited his work at the Peoria Art Guild and the UIS gallery.

Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.

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