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Thursday, 03 April 2014 00:00

The arts find a new home in Beloit

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From the left, Sabrina Cimochowski, Jody Wittnebel, Johnny Wittnebel, Marilu Wiesner, Connor Oddenino renovate a performance space in The Castle at 501 Prospect, which will host the B.A.R.N. festival April 12. From the left, Sabrina Cimochowski, Jody Wittnebel, Johnny Wittnebel, Marilu Wiesner, Connor Oddenino renovate a performance space in The Castle at 501 Prospect, which will host the B.A.R.N. festival April 12. photo/staff

STATELINE NEWS -- After acquiring the First Presbyterian Church on Prospect Street at auction two years ago, Jody and John Wittnebel, and their kids, Brittnay, Johnny, Ian and Jack, hatched an ambitious plan for the old building.

After many long hours and late nights, the doors have begun to reopen.

Read the current edition here:

The former church, now known as The Castle at 501 Prospect, will host the B.A.R.N. Festival April 12.


B.A.R.N., or Beloit Artist Resource Network is the brainchild of Beloit College senior Marilu Wiesner. It’s a loose-knit group of artists across many mediums dedicated to building a new scene and adding to the existing scene for the arts in Beloit.

"The Beloit Artist Resource Network is not an organization, it’s like a loosely tied together group of people who are interested in the arts, and that includes the performing arts, like music and dance," Wiesner said. "The festival is an opportunity for people to get together and participate in the arts in the community."

The festival will host nine bands, a dance company, a set of student guest pieces from Beloit College and a sketch comedy group. Wiesner said, after seeing The Castle, she just knew that’s where she had to have the festival.

"I’m the event curator, I pulled all the bands together, managed the budget and the nitty-gritty, but also the fun stuff like meeting all the people who were interested in getting involved," Wiesner said. "When I met Jody, she was just so amazing and enthusiastic and The Castle was just so great, it sort of became the only option for me."

Wiesner feels that the eclectic offering at the B.A.R.N. festival is really what makes it attractive. She likes the idea that bringing many different artists together under one roof may provide opportunities of exploration and collaboration.

Weisner will be playing with her band Dupond Dupont, but also among the talent on Saturday night you’ll find Rob Tomaro’s Jazz trio. On a normal day you’ll find Tomaro directing the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra and teaching music at Beloit College, but on April 12, he’ll be playing Miles Davis and John Coltrane in The Castle’s Great Hall. Tomaro was only too happy to be included on the list of performers, because he feels that both the venue and festival are part of an ongoing resurgence in Beloit’s art scene.

"I’ve been living in Beloit now for 15 years and I became aware early on that there was a very interesting cultural resurgence in what is a pretty small town," Tomaro said. "As I came into town I noticed that there was a tremendous sense of acceptance of all kinds of arts in downtown life and performance spaces, and I was encouraged. I think this is a natural progression and natural extension of the cultural life of Beloit, and I think we are going to be going through a second renaissance. With the B.A.R.N. project as kind of a hub, I think you are going to find more and more artists attracted to the area."

Rebirth of a building

About the time the Wittnebels were looking for a permanent location for the student outreach group, The Youth Unite, the former First Presbyterian Church became available.

The Youth Unite was started by the Wittnebels’ daughter, Brittnay, in 2008 shortly after Brittnay was crowned Miss Beloit.

The organization holds assemblies and events in local schools to advocate against bullying.

"We started offering concerts for high school kids, and we had huge success over the course of two years," Jody said. "We held the concerts at churches and parks wherever we could find space. It was just a lot of good clean fun."

After about six months of research and querying local organizations, the family decided to go for broke in a plan that would renovate the ailing structure into a community and arts center and provide a home for The Youth Unite. Although the reconstruction plan was extensive and costly, Jody actually has experience with the specific task.

"The building was completely falling apart, it needed it to be saved," Jody said. "In my hometown of Lakeville Minn., I was actually a part of the church renovating project. We rebuilt an old church into a community arts center, so I knew it could be done. We did our research before we dove into this huge mega project, but this sort of thing is becoming more and more common throughout the country."

The B.A.R.N. festival and The Castle may very well be the next big thing in Beloit, and as Jody says, they couldn’t possibly have a better location.

"It’s a perfect location to become a community center and a hub for the arts," said Jody. "It’s on a hill next to the college, just down the street from Visit Beloit, right next to the Rasey House, the Beloit Museum and the anthropology museum."

If you want to be on the ground floor of a new local event and venue that are about to launch, you may want to stop by on Saturday. Weisner says that it’ll be well worth your time and money.

"It’ll be a fun-filled day with activities for adults and children, tons of entertainment and the maximum price at the door, if you are an adult non-student, of only $8," said Weisner. "You’d usually pay that much for about two hours of entertainment, but at the B.A.R.N. Festival you’ll get five, and you’ll get to see the inside of the castle."

If you go

The B.A.R.N. Festival

When: April 12, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Admission: $5 in advance or $8 at the door.

Information: The Castle

Tickets: The B.A.R.N. Festival

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