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Lunch with Mimi: Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts Executive Director Rick Bryant

by on July 03, 2017 11:48 AM

The 2017 Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts will be held July 13-16, with Children and Youth Day on July 12 and BookFest on July 15. Every year, the festival brings more than 125,000 people to downtown State College to celebrate the arts and enjoy performers of international, national, and regional stature on the outdoor and indoor stages.

Named executive director of the CPFA in 2005, Rick Bryant has been a paid staff member of the festival since becoming director of visual arts in 1999. His involvement with the festival dates back to 1984, when he first volunteered on the trash crew.

Born in Bellefonte, he attended the University of Virginia, where he took bagpipe lessons and earned a bachelor’s degree in architectural history in 1979. After college, Bryant worked as a property and casualty insurance agent in State College for 19 years.

As an American history buff, Bryant writes about his adventures as a “doofus hipster wannabe” and the unusual places he has been in his blog, The Wandering Wahoo.

In addition to his role at the CPFA, Byrant has been

on several boards of community organizations including the Art Alliance of Central Pennsylvania, the State College Board of Health, the Board of Deacons of State College Presbyterian Church, Community Advisory Board for Penn State’s Center for the Performing Arts, State College Historic Resources Commission, and the State College Design Review Board.

This year marks the 51st annual Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts in State College. Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Bryant at Mario’s Italian Restaurant to discuss his involvement with the festival and what it takes to put on such a successful event every year.

Mimi: Well, my goodness, I’ve known you for 43 years, is that right?

Rick: Yes, since fall of 1974.

Mimi: I first met you when you, my daughter Carol, and two other classmates were on Scholastic Quiz on channel 6. Refresh our memories about that.

Rick: Well, it was a quiz show modeled on College Bowl, shown on channel 6, the NBC affiliate in Johnstown. We competed in a single-elimination tournament and we were the runner-up. We lost in a three-game final to Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown, but we had a great time. We won $4,400 worth of scholarships to the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. One of my classmates, Ginny Gingrich, got to use that scholarship money.

Mimi: Looking at this picture of the Scholastic Quiz: Carol majored in English from Yale. Do you remember what David Weintraub went to school for? I think he may be a PhD.

Rick: I think he is too. Da-Shih Hu is an MD so I am the underachiever. My college classmates think I run a carnival.

Mimi: You went to school at the University of Virginia. And you graduated in architectural history?

Rick: Yep, architectural history, not a very popular major, but something that still interests me.

Mimi: You’ve been running the festival since 2005.

Rick: I’ve been on the paid staff since 1999.

Mimi: And before that you volunteered for them.

Rick: I did. I started volunteering in 1984 picking up the garbage.

Mimi: What made the festival so sustainable?

Rick: Well, I think the festival had two things going for it and one was the people it had working for it. They were people who were accustomed to getting things done. They weren’t folks to take no for an answer and secondly, State College’s social and economical isolation help too because it became something the community could embrace. It was so different than the other 360 days a year. The people in the region were smart enough to realize a good thing when they had it and kept it going.

Mimi: And they put a little oomph into the summer in State College. I have a feeling that the Fourth Fest got some of its juice from the example of the festival.

Rick: Well, there’s People’s Choice too and that’s an outgrowth of the festival. They’ve been doing a great job for 20-some years and now our Arts Festival weekend, there’s Heritage Days in Philipsburg, which is a little farther away, but you know a rising tide lifts all boats and they’re one of the boats that’s gotten lifted too.

Mimi: Interesting that you look at the People’s Choice with pleasure. I can remember the day that we found out that was happening and we had great concern about the PR fallout.

Rick: Sure, I remember that happening. And I’m not sure whose idea it was to keep positive but that was absolutely the right decision. Now we list them on our website and on our program as something to do. So, a lot of people go to both.

Mimi: Each enhances the other. They have a different pitch.

Rick: Absolutely. They give local performers two gigs in one weekend.

Mimi: That says something else about the community when you think about it.

Rick: Yes it does, actually last year, there was a storm and their tent blew over. I called them right away and asked them if they needed anything, we can give them a dining tent or send people over. They didn’t need our help, but they were glad we were there to offer it.

Mimi: And they’re growing and you’re growing.

Rick: Yeah, we’re bringing in bigger acts and our audience is growing all the time.

Mimi: Well, I’ve been involved in the festival since 51 years ago and I was one of the worker bees. When you look at the volunteers that really make this festival what it is, how many volunteers do you need each year?

Rick: It’s about 600. And a lot of people are very invested in what they do. They’ve been an ambassador, worked at a sales booth or at the information booth and they like doing that.

Mimi: What’s your biggest problem going forward?

Rick: The biggest problem is always paying for it. It’s a free party so we rely on an annual fund. We have some earned income with artists fees and selling buttons, but paying for the festival is always the biggest challenge.

Mimi: What is the total budget for the thing?

Rick: For the Festival and for First Night it’s at least $722,000.

Mimi: How do you keep it that low?

Rick: Volunteer labor is certainly helpful; we have three full-time employees including me. We have Jennifer Shuey, our development director, Carol Baney, our operations director, and it’s just the three of us. We have a couple people like Doris Mack, our performing arts director, she’s a paid contractor. During the festival, we have a ton of paid contractors for sound and light, as well as people that clean bathrooms. They aren’t employees; they just work those five days a year. Doris works throughout the year; she listens to every single musical submission we get.

Mimi: Well, you know, I had my time as president of the festival board and my goal was always to have one festival in the bank. God forbid something happens, you’re covered. Do we have one festival in the bank yet?

Rick: Actually we just completed an exercise where we tried to figure out if something happened and we weren’t able to have either the festival or First Night: could we keep the staff paid with health insurance and so forth? We almost have enough in the bank to do that. And that doesn’t include any appeal for help we would make to the community. Also, we just started a legacy society at the Centre Foundation. It’s called the Celebration Circle and we have maybe seven members right now. We don’t want any of the gifts to mature too soon.

Mimi: You’ve lived here all your life, except when you went to college. Tell me about your background in this community.

Rick: My parents moved here in 1948 and neither of them were Penn Staters. They met during World War II in France. My mother was a widow. Her first husband had died in a B-17 crash. She had been married for about a month before he shipped out. After he died, she enlisted. She worked as a dietician at a hospital in Nancy. She met my father while she was in France. He was a dashing fighter pilot. Even to this day I have people come up to me and say, “Oh, my mother or my grandmother thought your father was just the cat’s pajamas.” My father went to the University of California in Berkley for a while.

Mimi: Your father was a character.

Rick: Yes, he dropped out of college. He was a character, immensely larger than life.

Mimi: You knew he was in the room.

Rick: He was quite something. My siblings and I have all heard, “Oooh, your father’s so handsome.” My grandfather said that State College is a place on the move. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was a business associate of O.W. Houts. If you bought something at O.W. Houts and financed it, my grandfather held the paper. So, my father started working there in the lumber yard. I have three siblings and only one of them, my sister, is a Penn Stater.

Mimi: And where are they all?

Rick: My brother, the attorney, is in Penns Valley. My sister, a project manager for a software company, lives in Bellefonte, and we have another brother who lives in Texas. My mother used to say she had three only children and I think that pretty much hit it right on the nose. We’re all very different. We all think we are the smartest and the funniest.

Mimi: What have you enjoyed most about the development of the festival? How did you make a difference?

Rick: I have a lot of doubt in my life, I’m not really sure I make a difference, but I think that we have better entertainment than we’ve ever had and I think that the quality of artists we have continues to stay strong and grow. We pay attention to the idea that everyone should be able to buy something. The largest thing that’s happened is that we now have BookFest at Schlow Library, which is a tremendous asset to the community. They have some author talks and they’ve experimented with local authors, and comic books. Anything that gets someone to read is a wonderful thing in my book.

Mimi: Well, reading and art are a good combination.

Rick: I say that if you are the kind of person who’s going to buy art, you’re the person who’s going to open a book. And that’s the kind of customer we’re looking for. I want people who are going to buy art, go to a concert, stay in a hotel room, and buy a restaurant meal.

Mimi: And how do you measure that impact?

Rick: We have a survey every year, we ask people where they came from, did they stay, where did they stay, roughly how much money did they spend between when you left home and when you got back home.

Mimi: What are some of the high points from that survey from last year?

Rick: Well, of course I can’t remember them all, but in general we’re responsible for about 5,000 hotel room nights. This doesn’t account for friends and relatives who stay in your guest room and on your sofa. Last year our survey said 128,000 people came and we think that’s a pretty accurate number.

Mimi: That’s as many people who live in the whole county.

Rick: Ah, yes it is actually! And it has a huge impact. And we see people who started out in the kids sidewalk sale and occasionally we’ll see people that, on their application, said they did that and now they’re doing it as a real artist.

Mimi: Is the kids sidewalk sale unusual?

Rick: Yes. I think it’s pretty great. I’ve given talks across the country about that. It’s not just about the art; it’s also about the entrepreneurship. It teaches kids how to communicate with other people. It’s like a little business. It teaches them profit, loss, and intellectual property. Even if they’re going to use that money when their family goes to Disney Land or they want to buy a bike, they learn the value of work.

Mimi: What didn’t I ask you that you’d like to give as a parting thought?

Rick: I’d like to talk about my blog, it’s called The Wandering Wahoo. Now I don’t have a musical talent. I can’t sing, but I like to think I can tell a funny story, so I tell the story of my life in words and pictures.

Mimi: What kind of following do you have?

Rick: About three. (Both laugh)

Mimi: Well, I do think you have an amazing staff. To see Jennifer move from having done an incredible job at ClearWater to being an artist in charge of development, an artist who loves the environment, and she’s doing an amazing job.

Rick: True, and Carol is an artist too. She makes jewelry, so she’s learning how to make artists feel welcome and what artists need to have a selling environment. That’s two artists and that makes me the odd one out.

Mimi: Well, we’ll have to get people to read your blog! You run something that provides enjoyment for hundreds of thousands of people and that’s got to have a great reward for someone like you. And you do a pretty damn good job at it.

Rick: Thank you very much. I have the best art job in the county.

Mimi: Thanks for taking the time.

Rick: Hey, thanks for having me.


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