The Festival celebrated its 50th year, this year, but somehow didn’t feel as momentous as it should. 50 years is a big deal! And truthfully it feels a little anticlimactic. Maybe it is just me, but it feels like there has been a change in the way the community participates in Festival. Attendance feels down, the number of food booths has practically been halved compared to previous decades, and most of all I don’t sense any buzz or chatter about attending.
I love going to Festival and still look forward to it every year. I enjoy the crowds, and running into familiar faces. I bask in the energy and celebration of the different art forms, and being surrounded by the grilling food and music from the many stages. It all is invigorating to me. But it feels like there has been a collective shift. I sense that the people who attend are mostly families and friends of participants instead of crowds looking for something to do, or the curious observers of art or those who want to be exposed to new art and art forms. When I ask friends and co-workers if they are going, many decline or share that they aren’t interested. I grew up anticipating this once-a-year celebration and am baffled by people who don't feel the same way.
It used to be that THAT was the place to be, or at least it felt that way to me. The colors, sights, sounds, art, music AND PEOPLE! The most people I saw in one place might be at church or a football game, but THIS was a gathering of people on the move. People laughing, and singing, and walking, and dancing. You could sit and people watch, or travel from booth to booth nibbling and sharing. It felt like the best things in life. If that all still exists, why aren't the masses drawn to the Festival?
There are always the people who 'don't like crowds' or those intimidated by parking downtown. But if the population of Grand Rapids is still growing, why aren't the festival crowds growing? If I try and analyze it, I suspect that there are other, more regular opportunities that is taking some of the 'specialness' out of this one-time-a-year event. (Like how the Wizard of Oz used to be special because it was once a year, and now you can stream it anytime or buy the DVD and it isn't so special anymore.) Artprize now draws large crowds to downtown for free and that has the atmosphere of carnival that Festival used to have. And we now have weekly free concerts in spots around town on different days of the week for music lovers to gather. Is it marketing that isn't getting through? Is it just the fact that another generation has grown up and it doesn't hold the same appeal?
All I know is that the things that make Festival great, are the things that make LIFE itself great: art, music, family, fun, and food! We can all search out ways to get our regular dose of art to enhance our lives. If you haven't attended Festival in a while, make it a point to visit next year. It is always the first full weekend in June. Mark it on your calendar! I'll be there!
As for the future of Festival, I have a couple of suggestions.
1. Since eating whole-food, plant based, (a vegan diet) there aren't choices for me to eat down there. I used to be able to buy a walking salad, or veggie noodles, but those booths aren't participating anymore. I'd like to see more healthy choices available that aren't dripping in butter or oil (most cultures have vegan dishes, I'd like to see them participating).
2. I'd also like to go back to a ban on bringing pets to the Festival. I may be a party pooper, but I was disheartened to see all the animals (even though on leashes) with owners not being responsible. All the noises and crowds really freaked out a lot of pets. I saw terror in their faces, and owners handling them roughly when they were having normal reactions to people and noises. I saw innocent pedestrians being tripped by leashes of distracted owners. I witnessed owners not paying attention as their dogs ran right up to the faces of babies of people they don't know, and the dogs licked the babies, since they were at the same level, and the owners laughed it off. I'd be infuriated, in fact I was and it wasn't even my child. Some people aren't responsible and endanger others, so we should have rules to protect others. No pets at the Festival, please.
If you go, what draws you in? If not, why do you think people refrain from visiting the Festival?
I look forward to going. Maybe one of these years, my art will be accepted into the Festival Competition. That'd be a dream come true.
I'm working on it.
This is a chalk pastel drawing of the Calder Plaza at the Festival. I tried to loosely capture the COLOR of the moment.