For two years, artists and art lovers have missed the biggest outdoor summer celebration in downtown Columbus.
no longer. The (almost) annual Columbus Arts Festival returns from Friday to Sunday. About 500,000 people are expected to take part in the visual arts, entertainment and food on the Scioto Riverfront’s one-mile loop.
“I’m so excited it’s back. It’s the best free ticket in town,” said Lonni Thompson, a German Village resident who has attended the festival since the mid-1980s.
“It feels great,” said festival director Sean Kessler. “Pray for good weather.”
how the festival started
The Greater Columbus Arts Council, which hosts the festival, is calling this year’s event its 60th — counting from the first festival in 1962.
The first festival in 1962 was held on the lawn of the State Capitol on Broad Street and Main Street.
In a video celebrating the festival’s 50th anniversary, civic leader Norman Folpe recalls how the committee he led decided the city center needed more cultural and entertainment activities. A stage was set up in front of the state capitol and dozens of artist booths were set up on the lawn for the weekend festival.
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The festival continued at the location in 1974 under the direction of the newly formed Greater Columbus Arts Council (GCAC). Added children’s programs and more performers and artists. Among the early participating artists were well-known wood sculptor Elijah Pierce and master photographer Kojo Kamau.
In 1982, the festival moved to the Scioto Riverfront and continued until 2007 as it extended beyond the lawn of the State Capitol. In 1985, Ray Hanley, the new president of the Greater Columbus Arts Council, pushed the festival to be bigger and better. Typically, the festival is held over a weekend, but in 1991, mainly because Columbus was hosting the National Local Arts Council meeting, the festival was a 10-day event.
Due to the ongoing redevelopment of the Scioto Mile, the festival moved east to the Discovery District near the Columbus College of Art and Design in 2008, then back to the Scioto Riverfront in 2011, until the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted nearly every aspect of life.
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“Canceling the 2021 festival is hard, but not as hard as canceling 2020,” Kessler said. “It’s never an issue that you want to postpone. Artists have their annual events all over the country and have these festivals. In 2021, not enough people are vaccinated and there will be other surges. It’s all about keeping people safe safety.”
In September 2021, applications for artists are open, and by February 2022, Kessler said
GCAC is very confident that the festival will continue.
What to expect from this year’s festival
The 2022 festival will see fewer artists — 212, compared to the festival’s peak of more than 300 — in part to ensure the health and safety of all, as well as to address some of the construction that is still going on.
Artist booths and stages will be distributed along the riverfront and bridges on Rich and Main Streets. Three stages will provide live entertainment, and the new Film Festival will feature films throughout the day and family-friendly films on Friday and Saturday nights.
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About 30 food trucks (no food tents this year) and beverage stands—lemonade and beer are top sellers—will be on site.
The festival costs about $1.2 million, paid for through sponsor donations, artist booth fees and beer sales—the latter of which is an important source of revenue for GCAC.
“If it’s hot or humid, people won’t buy alcohol,” said Jami Goldstein, GCAC’s vice president of marketing, communications and events. (The sweet spot for maximum beer sales appears to be temperatures between 78 and 82 degrees.)
Artists participating in the festival
Artists will come from 36 states and Ontario, Canada to showcase and sell their work in a variety of mediums: ceramics, painting, fiber, glass, jewelry, leather, mixed media, photography, painting, sculpture, and more.
After submitting an image of the work, a blind jury of five local art experts selects the artist. Artists pay a small application fee and then pay a booth fee, which can range from $600 to $2,000 depending on booth size and facilities. All proceeds from their art sales are theirs. In three days, an artist made an average of $8,000 in sales.
Larry Allen, a potter from Leeds, Alabama, has attended about 10 Columbus festivals and plans to return this year. A national festival veteran, he ranks the Columbus Festival as a “top art show.”
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Allen said he’s been selling his work online during COVID, something he doesn’t want to do.
“I love meeting people at festivals, and I really hate packing and sending things out,” he said.
More Artists and Entertainment Highlights
In addition to the artists selected by the jury, approximately 30 Central Ohio artists will showcase and display their crafts at the Great Local Art Village.
At the Children’s Art Gallery, a long-standing feature of the festival, kids can purchase works donated by artists for $5 or less. (My daughter in her 30s has a beautiful picture hanging around her home that she bought at an arts festival for $5 when she was in elementary school.)
Music, dance, drama, storytelling, speaking and more live performances will take place on three stages across the festival grounds. Scheduled artists include: The Deal Breakers, Kelly Zullo & The Invisible Circus, Largemouth Brass Band, Columbus Celtic Dancers, Columbus Children’s Theatre, Shadowbox Live and members of the Black Women Rise Poetry Collective.
Inevitably, street performers appeared. Sean Perry, a 20-year-old University of Miami student, has wandered the grounds playing his violin at about 10 music festivals. He said he started when he was 10 years old.
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The street performers at the festival, he said, “contribute to this atmosphere of exploration…I have had a lot of parents stop by and ask how to get their kids involved in learning the violin. It was a wonderful experience and I’m excited to spread the word. My love for music.”
Gorilla on the ground
The biggest question mark is the weather.
The festival has endured two dismal weather years in recent years – 2011 when winds in El Derecho form blew across the venue, and 2015 it rained, rained, rained.
Kessler recalled that as the artist went ahead with the sale, he held up part of the artist’s tent, which fluttered in strong winds. Goldstein remembers standing in a few inches of water in another tent.
“The most frustrating thing about hosting an outdoor festival is the weather you can’t control,” she said.
Festival fans looking forward to the return of the event
Those hoping for fine weather include Mike Maly and his husband Greg Maly, who have been attending festivals since the late 1990s, meeting artists and buying work for their Woodland Park home.
“This is an amazingly diverse group of artists from all over the country,” Mike Maly said. “We bought acrylic paintings, glass sculptures, iron sculptures… This year we want a new outdoor glass sculpture.”
Maly said the festival was open air and they were “excited, excited and not worried about COVID”.
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“We’re glad the festival is back,” he said. “There are so many things in this country right now that divide us, but this is the one thing that brings us together.”
Lonnie Thompson agreed.
“COVID isn’t going away, but we can’t put our lives on hold forever,” she said.
“This festival brings life to the downtown Riverside area. I look around my house and see the one-of-a-kind things I bought there — like the tinsel monkey hanging from my 120-year-old magnolia tree, everyone It’s all snickering… The festival is a cultural event that brings people together, and this year makes that gathering even more precious.”
at first glance
The Columbus Arts Festival takes place on the banks of the Sciotto River in downtown on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Hours of Operation: Friday 11am-10:30pm, Saturday 10am-10:30pm, Sunday 10am-5pm. Festivals are free. For more information, including parking and alternatives, visit www.columbusartsfestival.org.