Festivals — those creative engines of democracy — are on our minds as we gear up for October’s Tucson Meet Yourself and our local arts season. We only need to look at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)study, Live from Your Neighborhood: A National Study of Outdoor Arts Festivals, to understand the significance of the neighborhood festival as a celebratory democratic platform.
NEA, the largest national funder for arts in the United States, was established by Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government. To date, the NEA has awarded more than $5 billion to support local arts that benefit of individuals and communities. In its 2009 study, the 1,264 survey respondents reported on 1,413 outdoor arts festivals in 49 states. More than 35% of the festivals reported had been produced longer than 20 years, with 59% offered free to the community. A key finding: the diversity of Americans who attend outdoor festivals is more reflective of the general US population, and has the highest attendance rates when comparing with other single types of arts venues.
Here in Arizona, the Arizona Commission on the Arts encourages cultural conversations among Arizona citizens and reinforces the role of arts as a significant contributor to the economic health and livability of Arizona communities. Established in 1966, the Commission builds access to the arts, strengthens the community, opens opportunity for innovation and preserves cultural traditions across the state. Commission programs evolve through Commission-inspired public and private partnerships, education programs and resources, as well as grant distributions to schools, organizations and individuals. The Commission’s Executive Director Robert C. Booker speaks to BorderLore about Arizona festivals, and to their capacity for creatively engaging citizens in celebrating and sharing culture:
Why Outdoor Festivals Matter
The NEA report title alone, “Live from your Neighborhood,” stakes a claim, and I believe justly so, that festivals in their best form are grounded in the neighborhood, city, or people of a community. The examples shown are wide but each has a thread of connection to place and people.
Festivals are by and large held in places that are familiar and known — in a city square, a neighborhood church, or a beloved park. They are — in their best forms — accessible and honest. Charleston’s Spoleto festival draws 250,000 people to see world class and local musicians and art, in venues ranging from parks and churches, to formal performing spaces. On the other hand, we know of festivals in Arizona that truly engage the members of a community in creating the events of the day, and welcome others to learn about their culture, like the India Festival produced by the India Association of Phoenix, with 10,000 attendees.
At the Arizona Commission on the Arts, we recently revised our grant criteria for festivals to these three areas:
- Quality Artistic Programming: Project provides quality artistic programming through festival activities.
- Community Impact: Project meaningfully engages communities through festival activities.
- Stewardship of Public Funds: Project budget is complete and appropriate; project demonstrates a commitment to access for people of all abilities.
It is our belief that communities are best at determining their own needs, their own voices and sharing their culture, and we focus on community engagement and applicants who are grounded in those areas.
Festivals Are Democratic Experiences
The act of people gathering to celebrate, protest, mourn, ask, praise and share meals has been a part of the human experience since the beginning. It is this societal action that creates unity, understanding and movements. Since my childhood, I have been a festival participant: State fairs, pow wows, tractor pulls, music performances, art shows, theatre performances, poetry and storytelling.
To me a festival is any activity where folks gather for a common inclusive collective experience. I often joke that (festivals) are my favorite gateway to the arts. The arts in all its forms can suffer from both perceived and real barriers. The perceived barriers are the toughest. What do I wear to the symphony? Are all the opera performances 4 hours long and in German? Do I have to be a member to go to the museum; what if I say something stupid? Festivals on the other hand are virtually barrier free. There is a freedom of walking into the festival grounds in a familiar park, community center, or town square. You are on your own, to choose what you want to experience and for how long, and of course there is always food and drink. To me these gatherings combat the elitism often both real and perceived by our arts institutions.
Artists Express Citizenship
Artists have always created interesting collectives, whether they have been stylistic, political, geographic, genre or material. I believe in the power of associations. Alexis de Tocqueville spoke about America being a country based on associations. In recent years I have seen many artists throughout Arizona taking action as formal or informal associations. These actions have ranged from mobilizing gallery spaces and exhibitions, adding their voice and skills to political challenges, supporting each other as individual makers, and welcoming in those who are interested in their gatherings. This individual action, tied to the development of associations large and small, will, I believe, grow participation in the arts and thus open up the benefits of creative action in communities across the state.
- Read the Commission’s 2014 Report to the Governor and its toolkit for building public value for the Arts in Arizona. Subscribe to the Arts Commission newsletters here.
- 2011 Arizona Town Hall Report on Arts https://www.azmc.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Arts_98th_Background_Report.pdf