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Arts Ovation Awards Announced

Arts Ovation Awards Announced

The arts give life to the city. Join us in celebrating those who give life to the arts. Strong partnerships between businesses, community members and the arts stimulate economic growth, promote the city’s revitalization, encourage tourism and enhance Allentown’s cultural image. The Allentown Arts Commission Arts Ovation Awards, now in its 30th year, recognize the community’s crucial contributions to the arts.

We are excited to invite the community to celebrate Allentown’s vibrant Arts Community and honor six incredible individuals & organizations and a family who has contributed extraordinary works to define and move Allentown’s Arts Community forward.

“To see the years of dedication this year’s recipients have given to Allentown and the arts shows us that our community has a very deep rich soul,” said Jane Heft, Allentown Arts Commission and City Center Allentown VP & Design Director. “It feels good to be part.”

This anniversary event will be hosted in the Ball Room of the Renaissance Allentown Hotel on Thursday, September 27th, 2018, and will honor The Butz Family with the Legacy Award and the following recipients for their steadfast belief and dedication to the Arts in Allentown:

Peter Gourniak
Outstanding Achievement in Visual Arts

Blues, Brews & BBQ
Outstanding Achievement in Performing Arts

The LGBT Library at Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center
Outstanding Achievement in Literary Arts

JoAnn Wilchek Basist, Civic Theatre
Outstanding Achievement in Arts Education

Jessica Bien, GM, Muhlenberg College Department of Theatre and Dance
Outstanding Service to the Arts

The Alternative Gallery
Outstanding Emerging Artists

The commission will also award scholarships for outstanding achievement in art, music and theatre to students from Allentown’s high schools: William Allen, Louis E. Dieruff & Central Catholic High Schools.

Details on the recipients are as follows:

The Legacy Award – The Butz Family

The Butz Family has a long, successful history of general contracting and construction management in the Lehigh Valley and beyond. Celebrating their 175th anniversary through June of 2019, Alvin H. Butz, Inc. is one of the largest and most reputable construction management firms headquartered in Pennsylvania. Acclaimed for quality of workmanship and innovative use of technology and methodology, the company has managed many prestigious projects throughout the Valley. Early dedication to the redevelopment of downtown distinguished the company and the Butz family corporate legacy as one that would reflect their love of Allentown and their desire to improve the quality of life for those who live there.

To read the history of the Butz Family is to finally understand what it means to give back to one’s community. Their generous support of an incredible number of nonprofit organizations and humanitarian causes reflects the true spirit associated with a family who leaves an undeniable legacy to a grateful community.

Their generosity in support of the arts is unparalleled. Although the number of arts events and venues has increased exponentially over the past few decades, rarely does an event go by without a member of the Butz family in attendance, and often sitting at a table sponsored by the company. A photographic artist in his own right, Lee Butz (accompanied by his lovely wife Dolly) can often be seen capturing moments at a theatrical production for which he has also provided sponsorship. Lee’s son Greg is also a stalwart supporter of arts events, sometimes accompanied by one of his two son Steven or Mike, an indication that the Butz family will remain committed to the arts for generations to come. The Butz name is one of the most frequently displayed in any list of significant sponsors at arts events. Both Lee and Greg have served on many boards of arts organizations, sharing their business acumen with thankful nonprofits. The construction assistance that Alvin H. Butz offers to the community is evident in the revitalization of the buildings that house some of Allentown’s most vital artistic venues. Most recently, Greg has served as the co-chair of the Civic Theatre of Allentown’s Capital Campaign, providing leadership and guidance to the organization. The Butz stamp of excellence will be on display when Civic reopens in October and the new Lyric Room at Miller Symphony Hall opens this fall. As well as being notable supporters of the Allentown School Foundation which supports innovative and enriched programming in the Allentown School District, Eric Butz and his wife, Deborah Roberson, are prominent architects whose designs can be found throughout the Valley, including many designs for nonprofit organizations.

The list of nonprofit arts organizations who have benefitted from donations, sponsorships, and volunteer time from the Butz family is a literal list of “Who’s Who” of the Allentown Arts Scene. Their years of steadfast dedication to the arts is marked by their philanthropic generosity, as well as support to organizations in the area of construction assistance. An incomplete, but impressive, list of arts organizations who will be forever grateful to the Butz family and the legacy of generosity that will serve not only today’s community members, but also future generations is as follows:

• The Allentown Art Museum
• Miller Symphony Hall
• Allentown School Foundation
• The Baum School
• Civic Theatre of Allentown
• DeSales University Theatre Program
• Muhlenberg College
• State Theatre

Outstanding Achievement in Visual Arts – Peter Gourniak

Peter Gourniak is a true Allentown Renaissance man. He's spent his entire career working in Allentown. Peter was here during the days of Hess's and Junior Colony booking models for one of the photographer's Hess's used liked to use, Mr. Paul Pelak. Peter stayed in Allentown when others left for the suburbs and he evolved and grew his capabilities as an artist. While Peter worked on productions in Hawaii, Paris, LA, NYC and Milan, Italy, he never forgot his Allentown roots.

Gourniak witnessed first-hand the re-birth of Allentown and was tapped to document the construction of the PPL arena. When Jane Heft, director of project design and corporate branding for City Center Investment Corp. needed a photographer to track the construction progress of the new PPL arena, Gourniak got the call. “I wanted the documentation to feel raw and unedited. Like a musician, Peter tells the story between the lines. He doesn't wait for the perfect shot, he sees the beauty in the rough,” said Heft.

Peter's photos of the arena construction were used to create the very first public showing at The MEZZ Gallery at the Renaissance Allentown Hotel.

Whether he's shooting Blues, Brews & Barbecue or the first ever New Year's Eve Celebration in Downtown Allentown, he brings over 40 years of commitment and dedication to every project he tackles. He's a prolific multi-media painter, photographer, event planner, chef, videographer, corporate production designer, talent scout and guitar player. A true renaissance man in every sense of the word. I personally feel like the time has come to acknowledge this man's considerable contribution to both the visual arts and the city of Allentown. Peter exemplifies everything the Arts Commission Award represents. He's an individual whose achievements have had a significant and positive impact on the citizens of Allentown and the quality of life in the Allentown arts & cultural community.

After a career that’s lasted nearly 40 years, others might be ready to step away from the light and start winding down. Not Gourniak. He’s launching his latest endeavor, Artica Content Studios — a creatively driven soup-to-nuts production house at in Allentown that will create, develop, and acquire entertaining and educational content for the web, TV, and film.

Outstanding Achievement in Performing Arts – Blues, Brews & BBQ

The Blues, Brews & BBQ festival was created in downtown Allentown 11 years ago. Since its inception, the free and open to the public festival has grown from 3,000 in attendance to over 25,000 visitors to become a premier destination for food and music lovers throughout the Lehigh Valley and beyond.

This festival has had many positive effects for our downtown Allentown, including:

• Serving as a tourism draw bringing thousands of visitors and residents into downtown Allentown;
• The caliber of musicians and performers has improved every year;
• Additional stages for musical performances has increased;
• Bringing in new and interesting barbecue and craft vendors each time the festival was expanded;
• Attendance increased from around 3,000 attendees to over 25,000 in 2018;
• The festival has grown from one venue in the 800 block of Hamilton Street to adding multiple music stages and spanning 9th street to 5th street.
• Increased community engagement, including 7th Street’s participation.

Miriam Huertas and The Hamilton District Main Street Program has led this initiative as part of their events planning since it began. About five years ago, they accepted full responsibility for every aspect of this festival – growing it and making downtown Allentown a true destination for music and food lovers from as far away as Baltimore, Virginia, New York New Jersey and Philadelphia. Each year the HD hires national and international Blues touring artists showcasing Allentown as an impressive arts and cultural destination. In addition to these nationally recognized Blues artists, it is important for Main Street Programs to support the local arts community and each year the HD hires talented local musicians and artisans to perform and participate in the Blues festival, as well.

The festival is constantly trying to expand its offerings and inclusivity by partnering with community organization to create unique experiences. This year creating a “Kids Art Experience” in the Gallery on the ArtsWalk as part of the festival, and adding a “Vegan Veggie Block.”

Outstanding Achievement in Literary Arts – The LGBT Library at Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center

The LGBT Library at Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center is a professionally-staffed library featuring more than 2,200 books, CDs and DVDs celebrating LGBT literature, history, community, and culture! It is located at 522 W. Maple Street in Allentown.

Library programs include intergenerational community book discussions and author visits for book talks and signings. Through a partnership with the Digital Humanities Initiative at Lehigh University, the library catalog is available online and about 5% of the collection is typically out on circulation.

Of the variety of valuable services that Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center offers, one of the most unique and meaningful is their LGBT Library and literary programs. The center has over 2,200 books, accessible at no cost to anyone who visits the center, and includes a variety of genres of books and novels such as gay fiction, lesbian fiction, biographies and memoirs, children’s books, and plays and poetry. Many of these books provide insight, support, and useful knowledge for those who are and are not a part of the LGBT community. The LGBT Library at Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center is a critical resource for the community because mainstream libraries often have few resources for LGBT people, and oftentimes those resources are outdated.

Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center’s work on literary engagements does not end with the LGBT Library, but instead, the programs included in this work extend to a wide range of other areas of interest for people of all backgrounds and experiences. Programs at the center have addressed people of varying socioeconomic statuses, races and ethnicities, people of all genders, and intergenerational groups of people. For the younger people the center serves, youth writing workshops for slam poetry have provided children and teens with a much-needed sense of visibility and validation. The writing workshops allow participants to feel heard, seen, and important through a healthy and cathartic way of dealing with the stress of potential homelessness, housing insecurity, and homophobia they may be facing.

The center has also reached LGBT youth through literary author talks. In early June, Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center hosted a community literacy activity and artist reception where enlarged black and white coloring pages from the gender-liberating book “Girls Will Be Boys Will Be Girls Will Be” were posted around the center’s art galleries for everyone to interactively color on and fill in. The book is comprised of literature and drawings that challenge the traditional gender norms and encourage children and all of its readers to be their authentic self regardless of society’s gendered demands.

Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center has worked tirelessly to improve and expand its literary programs to meet the needs of Allenton and the Greater Lehigh Valley area. Through bringing different perspectives of authors on crucial and relevant topics, creating writing workshops that allow people to feel important and worthy, providing no-cost literature that reduces stigma and encourages coexistence, and creating necessary dialogues of intersectionality and understanding the identities of others, the literary programs at Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center have helped to make Allentown a significantly more inclusive, vibrant, and welcoming place to live.

Outstanding Achievement in Arts Education – JoAnn Wilchek Basist

JoAnn Wilchek Basist has been an arts educator for over 40 years, inspiring and encouraging thousands of students not only in her career as a teacher, but also in her position as the volunteer Administrator of Civic Theatre’s Children’s Theatre School program. In her role as volunteer administrator, Ms. Wilchek Basist assumes the multiple responsibilities of creating the curriculum, hiring teachers, supervising classrooms, communicating with parents and guardians, generating original scripts, organizing showcases, and serving as a liaison with the Civic staff. In addition to her administrative responsibilities, Ms. Wilchek Basist also has taught during one or more of the fall, spring, or summer sessions, where her originally scripted showcases have become legendary. JoAnn’s colleagues refer to her as a “teacher’s teacher.” Her remarkable exuberance and dedication to students does not stop at the classroom. She steadfastly supports her students with her willingness to prepare them for auditions in outside theatrical endeavors, her accessibility to conference with parents about college decisions, and her remarkable desire to arrange her extremely busy schedule to go to any length to see them when they perform…anywhere, anytime. As an accomplished actress, she has performed in many plays on venues throughout the Valley. As an actress, she serves as a role model to students of all ages. She is a very disciplined performer, a generous cast member, and a willing mentor to all students who share the stage with her. JoAnn is often credited with the success of Civic’s Children’s Theatre Program. The respect and love that she has for her students is returned not only by students, but also by the parents who watch their children reach their potential under her guidance.

Over so many years, JoAnn has taught or worked with students who have gone on to success in the arts. Actress Christine Taylor, well known for her role of Marsha in “The Brady Bunch,” has returned to serve as a Celebrity Co-Chair for Civic’s Capital Campaign. Reese Diaz has performed on Broadway. Dane DeHaan has accrued a number of movie credits and an Obie Award. Tim Heidecker has a huge following as a comedian, writer, director, actor and musician. As importantly, so many of her students remain grateful to her as they achieve phenomenal success in many professions, success that they attribute to her influence on their lives when they were her theatre students.

Ms. WIlchek Basist also created and participates in “The Cat In The Hat” reading program for area schools across the Lehigh Valley. This sought after program during which the “Cat” reads to elementary students and then leads discussions on those stories has been exceptionally successful. Recently, she initiated a special program for 4th grade students in which, in cooperation with the Allentown School District Foundation, hundreds of students visited Civic Theatre during June where they sang along with the Cat, broke into group reading activities, and left ready to pursue reading activities throughout the summer.

JoAnn is also mentor to three area schools for the performing arts in Allentown and Easton and is an adjunct professor at Cedar Crest College teaching public speaking and acting classes.

Outstanding Service to the Arts – Jessica Bien, GM, Muhlenberg College Department of Theatre and Dance

Jessica Bien has served as the Muhlenberg College's Department of Theatre and Dance General Manager since 2006. She is a proud alumna of William Allen High School's Arts Academy.

Jessica Bien has been at the forefront of the Accessible Arts programs throughout the Lehigh Valley. She has been the pioneer making performing arts programs accessible for the deaf, the visually impaired, and for people with autism spectrum disorder. More than ten years ago, Jessica coordinated the first audio described and open captioned performance in the Lehigh Valley at the Muhlenberg Summer Music theatre and she has continued to work with Muhlenberg College Theatre, De Sales University, and the Lehigh Valley Arts Council in facilitating accessible performance throughout the year. Five summers ago, Jessica was instrumental in setting up the Lehigh Valley’s first sensory friendly performance for children with autism at the Muhlenberg Summer Music Theatre and she has continued to coordinate these performances over the past five years. In 2015, she was the recipient of the Center for Vision Loss’s Accessibility Champion award for her work with audio described performances and she was recognized by the Pennsylvania Senate in 2015 for “her vision and leadership toward greater inclusion in the arts.” Jessica has also served on several panels for the Lehigh Valley Arts council on expanding arts accessibility for the handicapped.

Jessica is the general manager of the department of theatre and dance at Muhlenberg College. At Muhlenberg she created a class on “Accessibility and the Arts” for theatre students. The class was the first of its kind in the country and it represents a unique effort to create a new generation of arts leaders who have an expanded vision of who can be in arts audiences.

Jessica’s Career highlights include:

• Coordinated the first open captioned performance (of a touring Broadway production), for patrons who are Deaf and hard of hearing, in Boston, MA in 2002.
• Coordinated the first audio described opera performance, for patrons who are Blind or low vision, in Boston, MA.
• Coordinated the first audio described Shakespeare on the Common performance in Boston, MA.
• Coordinated accessible services for patrons for the Boston, MA tour of "Deaf West's Big River" National Tour in 2004.
• Coordinated the first Audio Described performance, for patrons who are Blind or low vision, and Open Captioned performance, for patrons who are Deaf and hard of hearing, in the Lehigh Valley for Summer Music Theatre's (SMT) production of Godspell in 2011.
• Coordinated the first Autism/sensory friendly performance of SMT’s Gruff in 2014. Coordinated sensory friendly performances for every SMT family production since 2014.
• Host for the Autism Resource Community Hub’s Summer Theatre camp session for several years.
• Recipient of the Center for Vision Loss’s Accessibility Champion award in 2015
• Recipient of a letter of Congratulations from the Senate of PA in May, 2015 honoring “her vision and leadership toward greater inclusion in the arts”
• Continue to coordinate accessible performances at Muhlenberg and assist with performances for DeSales University's Act 1 season.
• Served on several panels for Lehigh Valley Arts Council events throughout the years.
• Served as panel moderator at LVAC “Champions of Inclusion” event on July 12, 2018. Panel was titled “Building Partnerships: Sharing strategies for success”.

Jessica’s drive and determination to bring people with a range of disabilities into arts audiences has had a profound effect on the Lehigh Valley community. We can now proudly say that now all kinds of differently abled people are able to appreciate the rich cultural offerings being presented on Lehigh Valley stages.

Outstanding Emerging Artists – The Alternative Gallery

The Alternative Gallery is a non-profit art center which provides a full art gallery, artist studio spaces, performance space & educational classes which are open to anyone. It’s located at the Cigar Factory at 4th & Tilghman Streets in Allentown. Their contributors come from various mediums including; sculptors, photographers, comedians, actors, writers, painters, filmmakers, architects & more.

Each Fall it hosts the Alternative Arts Fest, a free three-day arts festival in Allentown's Cedar Beach Park highlighting all they do at the gallery- activities include a skate park, giant graffiti murals, a breakdancing competition, music and dozens of artists displaying and selling their work.

Their mission is to strengthen local communities through arts & education and build relationships with other communities around the world. Their market is everyone and anyone. This is not a space just for students of art. The Alternative Gallery works towards changing the perception of art to something everyone can be involved with.


 photo: Mcall

The entire community is invited to celebrate these honorees at the Arts Ovation Awards Reception, Thursday, September 27th, 2018, from 5:30 to 8:00 pm at the Renaissance Hotel, 12 N. 7th Street, Allentown. Valet parking is available.

Tickets to the event are $60 per person ($30 for students under 21) and are available online at or by mail to Allentown Arts Commission, 435 Hamilton Street, 3rd floor, Allentown PA 18101. You can download more information at:

The Commission also is seeking sponsorships for the event ranging from $250-$1000. Inquiries on the event or how to support can be directed to the Arts Commission Ovation Chair, Jane Heft, at 610-762-8099


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