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From a Small Start to a Big Deal: A History of the Arts Festival

by on July 09, 2013 9:49 AM

The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts wasn't always the major event it is today. Festival director Rick Bryant says it took a years to become a national force.

"It's been a gradual transition," Bryant says. "Long and slow."

Founded by the State College Chamber of Commerce and the Penn State College of Arts and Architecture, it started small, with local garage bands as the only performers. Bryant says the Arts Fest even included educational television programming, which consisted of certain programs being shown on Channel 3. It was 1967.

Today, there are about 300 artists from around the country who showcase their work at the sidewalk sale, well-known bands playing sets downtown, a Children's Day and even an event on New Year's Eve to kick off the Arts Festival season.

Each year, the countdown to the Arts Festival begins with "First Night State College," on New Year's Eve, which is a family-oriented event with music and horse-pulled carriage rides, ice sculptures.

There's a lot of hard work involved in putting the Arts Fest together. Organizers spend an entire year choosing the artists and the musicians.

 The Arts Fest has been a juried show since 1971. A "jury" selects the the artists for the sidewalk sale -- picking 300 artists from about 1,000 applicants. Artists from all over the country submit their work, which is judged.

"We've had artists show from Sweden and Canada, too," Bryant says.

Choosing music acts is another tough job. Members of the Arts Fest staff listen to bands' sets, also from all over the country, both live and on recordings.

Bryant has been to Arts Festivals in many different states and hasn't seen anything quite like the five-day-long event that more than 100,000 people attend and has brought in millions of dollars for the borough.

Over the years, Children's Day has been added, a day dedicated to arts, crafts and activities for the youngest State College residents to get some early exposure to the arts.

"It's pretty exciting. It puts State College on the map, in many ways," Bryant says.

The Arts Festival has a small staff; three full-time people, and one part-timer. Once the Festival ends, organizers wait about a month before starting to plan the next year's event. And then the whole process begins again.

This year, the 46th annual Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts runs from July 10-14. Check out the schedule of events here.

Laura Nichols is a news reporter and @LC_Nichols on Twitter.
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