Art Guide Northwest

It's Arts Festival Season
by Regina Hackett

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Breathes there a town with a soul so dead, that never to itself has said, "let's have an arts festival?" A town without an arts festival is a town without a soul. What John Cage said about music -- it happens all the time, even though we listen only part of the time-- is also true about art.

Art thrives in museums, top galleries and in highly competitive public art sites, taken seriously by critics. We call that the art world. What's blue chip in that context can be traded for mansions, luxury cars and ships at sea. Back in the real world, art that will never be featured in ArtForum or at Sotheby's shines at arts festivals, and for relatively modest amounts. Far more than the monetary value of individual pieces, however, is their value to communities that produce them. Such art is social glue.

During the Depression, the federal government recognized art's power to inspire. Across the country artists were paid to paint murals in the post office, schools and city hall, make sculptures for public squares, photograph the people, and design stage sets for theaters and music halls. While the National Endowment for the Arts continues this legacy, so do arts festivals, created for the people by the people. Whether homey or high-powered, such festivals have become an important part of who we are. In an age when major retailers and chain restaurants are making the country (and even the world) look increasingly the same, arts festivals celebrate differences.

Let's begin with the biggest, best and brightest, the Bellevue Art Museum Fair, going strong as it heads into its 57th year from July 25 - 27. This festival celebrates very classy objects. Many artists try for a slot (1,400 last year) but only 325 are chosen, the cream of the cream. Artists are the heart of the matter, but a lot of activity has grown up around them, including food (fast), music (lively) and performances (watch out for mimes).Naturally enough, the Bellevue Art Museum's fair takes place in front of the museum, at 510 Bellevue Way Northeast and spreads across the street to Bellevue Square. Drawing more than 300,000 people from across the region, participating artists earned $1.5 million, with 25 percent going to the museum.

Coming up before Bellevue is the University District Street Fair on May 17 and 18. Drivers beware: those on foot own the University District during this fair, and cars are banished to back streets. Like the Fremont Fair, the University Street Fair is beloved by those who like to participate in the action, instead of just observe it. Its annual costume procession brings a quirky edge to the idea of carnival. Instead of the sexy, beaded glamour of Caribbean processions, there's rugged individualism. You'll see trees marching alongside potatoes, big birds, slugs and pirates. Some of the region's top craft artists participate, especially the lone wolf types who think the Bellevue Fair is too fancy and elitist.

The U-District too rowdy for you? Wait till July 11 - 13 and go to the Kirkland Arts Center's Summerfest. This year the arts center is collaborating with the Kirkland Performance Center, so there will be high-tone theater, music and dance. Roughly 120 crafts people participate, all solid and respectable.

Don't know what to do with dad? Take him to the Edmonds Arts Festival on Father's Day weekend, June 13 - 15, with 240 artists and 46 years of festival tradition behind it. Edmonds is a small town, but it attracts more than 100,000 people to this fair, which is consistently rated among the top in the region.

Gig Harbor Art Festival

Calendar of Arts
Festivals 2003

Bellevue Art Museum Fair:
July 25 - 27

University District Street Fair:
May 17 - 18

Kirkland Arts Center's Summerfest:
July 11 - 13

Edmonds Arts Festival:
June 13 - 15

Choochokam Arts Festival:
July 12 - 13

Gig Harbor Festival:
July 19 - 20

Anacortes Arts Festival:
August 1 - 3.

August 29 - September 1

Issaquah Salmon Days:
October 4 - 5

One of the art booths in the Anacortes Arts Festival


July is the big month for community art festivals. July 12 - 13 is the Choochokam Arts Festival in Langley on Whidbey Island. Kelly Choate, who runs Langley's Museo Gallery, says her favorite part of the Choochokam Festival is the Saturday night dance, 6 to 11. "The whole town comes," she said. "Old people, babies, teenagers, parents: everybody's dancing. The sun is going down, and I'm surrounded by everybody I know. It reminds me of why I live here."

Then there's the Gig Harbor Festival held July 19 - 20. Artist Myrna Binion, who's been involved for years, is happy to tell artists with big reputations that their reputations won't help them get past the Gig Harbor jury. "We're looking for beautiful things, and we don't care who makes them," she said. "Variety is key, and everything is handmade. People schedule their vacations around this fair. Part of it is the location. We don't know how many people come. One year we bought clickers, but people spill into the open street from all directions, and we gave up. We just say plenty of people come."

The Anacortes 42nd Arts Festival starts August off on a right note, August 1 - 3. Robin Held, curator at the University of Washington's Henry Art Gallery, will serve as juror for the fine art show, running July 26 to Aug. 3. Veteran painter Max Benjamin and sculptor Steve Jensen will be honored, and the Taiko Drummers from Japan will perform Friday night. That's all pretty classy, but the heart of this fair is the locals. Last year, painter Pam Daoust worked with children to produce glorious banners celebrating the natural beauty of the place, a tradition that will be continued this year.

Labor Day weekend (August 29 - September 1) brings Bumbershoot to Seattle Center. As Yogi Berra used to say, that place is so crowded, nobody goes there anymore. The visual art exhibits are in the Northwest Court, and they're usually well worth the trip, especially because they open a few days before the rest of the festival, when entry is free. This is the place for people who like to jam vast quantities of music, theater, dance, film and literary events into a single weekend. If you don't mind lines and love free form spectacle, Bumbershoot is your kind of place. Clowns roll inside huge clown wheels in processions full of enormous fish puppets, butterflies and monster dolls. Jugglers join in, rolling balls off elbows and the backs of their necks, knees, bellies and toes. Throw in the drummers, fiddlers, flute players and the occasional balloon man, and the parade spills out into party gridlock, Bumbershoot style.

Feeling a festival overload? There's one more worth the trip, Issaquah Salmon Days Festival, October 4 - 5, with more than 300 arts and crafts booths. You'll get the best response from the locals if you come dressed as a fish. Even a fish shirt will do the trick. These people are seriously in love with salmon. You share their passion, you'll be family.

REGINA HACKETT is the Art Critic for The Seattle P.I.

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