Flocking to arts fests to 'connect'

Been to an arts festival lately? It's one of those phenomena so widespread it almost goes unnoticed.

North America has experienced a proliferation of festivals of all kinds - drama, comedy, literature, visual arts - over the past 15 years.

This trend is affecting how people experience the arts, how artists connect with their communities, and even how communities market themselves.

Shary Brown, executive director of the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair in Michigan, says, "The explosion in art festivals is a celebration of community. Art and culture is what makes us human, and we need this 'gathering' kind of celebration."

Bruce Skinner, president of the International Festivals and Events Association (IFEA), in Port Angeles, Wash., estimates "a 10-fold increase over the past 15 years" in the number of festivals and events in North America. He says that 21 percent of adults in the United States attended some kind of festival last year; of these, 31 percent attended an arts festival.

"Festivals have a tremendous appeal," Mr. Skinner says. At an outdoor music festival, for instance, "people feel they belong; they get up and dance, or whatever," he says.

A festival also encourages people to sample the unfamiliar.

Says Greg Gatenby, artistic director of the International Festival of Authors at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto (which runs through Oct. 30), "Nobody says, 'Let's get a baby sitter and drive downtown to see the hot new Bulgarian film.'

"But they'll go to a festival and maybe they'll see the hot new Bulgarian film. Maybe they'll see it because the Robert Redford film they wanted to see is sold out. But they've made the emotional commitment, they're there, and so they'll see it."

Mr. Gatenby launched the authors festival 20 years ago after observing such successes as the Montreal Jazz Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. He was looking for ways to connect people with literature.

"People are afraid of literature.... They're afraid there's going to be a test," he says. To counter this, he provides "a night's entertainment in a cabaret setting" with 30-minute readings by authors.

Lisa Remeny, a painter in Coconut Grove, Fla., who has exhibited her work at the NationsBank Coconut Grove Arts Festival, says, "The festival scenario is not as intimidating as a white-space gallery. The festival gives [visitors] a situation where they're totally without obligation."

For the artists, she adds, "the beauty of these outdoor festivals is that they get to meet their collectors.... You get a little insight into your public."

Festivals seem to feed a hunger for authentic experience.

"We demand that the artists be present," says Carol Romine, executive director of the Coconut Grove festival. "It's a much more personal experience when you can meet the artist...."

Not everyone sees the boom in festivals as something positive. Vinetta Strombergs of Theatre Ontario, an arts-support organization in Toronto, says it is a sign of more artists being unemployed and less funding being available for innovative productions.

Speaking specifically of North America's "fringe" theater festivals, she says, "People just don't make that much money out of them. They're great for the community, and great for the public ... but producers are lucky to cover their costs."

The festival boom has resulted in a certain benign collusion from the tourism industry, which is always looking for reasons to entice people to travel to - or back to - a given destination. According to the IFEA, festivals account for $5 billion in hotel room revenue in the US each year.

*Destinations magazine has just released its annual list of the 100 top events in the United States and Canada. For more information, log on to the Web site

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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