Festival of the Arts Celebrates 50 Years

by Elyse Wild  

For three days in June, Festival of the Arts transforms downtown Grand Rapids into a marketplace in which art and food are shared and culture is celebrated. Amid the familiar intersections emerge stages, tents and booths. The streets fill with the din of performances ranging from symphonic to alternative, ballet to martial arts, theatrical to spoken word and everything in between. An intoxicating assemblage of gastronomic aromas snakes through the air, a cultural stew composed of slouvaki, noodles, falafel, corn dogs, egg rolls and more. Festival is our city’s informal harbinger of summer; as Dianne Carroll Burdick, who sits on the event’s board of directors, puts it, “When it’s festival weekend, you can just feel it.”

Now, as it celebrates 50 years, the three-day festival is under permanent leadership while it embarks on a new era of creating community through art. 

David Abbott joined Festival of the Arts as executive director in 2018. He is the organization’s first-ever employee; until he was hired, the event was run entirely by dedicated volunteers. Establishing consistent leadership, Abbott says, secures the festival’s future. 

“People are more comfortable giving to organizations if the players don’t change,” Abbott commented.

Abbott’s life is peppered with memories of Festival of the Arts, one in particular that touches on an experience that prevails among many Grand Rapidian.

David Abbott Photography by Two Eagles Marcus

“When I was a kid and had Slouvaki at festival, it offered the first taste of something that was culturally different,” Abbott expressed, noting that for many attendees festival provides a vehicle into a culture outside of their own, whether it be through the palate-pleasing taste of meat on a stick, a piece of artwork or a dance performance. 

Festival of the Arts was inspired by the 1969 installation of Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse, commonly referred to as “The Calder.” Burdick, a celebrated photographer who joined the festival board three years ago, has participated in the event as either an artist, volunteer or both every year since the event debuted in 1970. 

“That first year, on Thursday night I helped set up chairs with my parents,” Burick recalled. “I had so much fun, and that is what made me love it forever. Whatever I have done in festival, I have always felt a sense of,
‘I belong.’” 

As Burdick grew, so did her participation in the festival. When speaking with her, it is clear that the event has had an impact on her as an artist and as a Grand Rapidian. She went from setting up chairs as a little girl to leading demonstrations in hooking rugs in high school; from playing in an orchestra on stage in college to earning an honorable mention in the festival’s art show — the Regional Arts Competition and Exhibition — something she says inspired her to pursue a career in photography. This year, she will be leading a demonstration in hand-coloring photographs. 

“My favorite part about it is coming together with all of the creatives in the community — festival is a family for me,” she said. 

During its inaugural year, festival was contained to two stages and a smattering of food booths on Calder Plaza. Today, the event sees nearly half-a-million visitors and is made possible by nearly 20,000 community volunteers.

This year, festival is bringing some special features to honor the 50-year run. For the first time, Monroe Center will host food trucks to cater to attendee’s hunger alongside the volunteer-run food booths. There will be ten stages for performances, the largest number of stages at the event to date; the Grand Rapids Ballet will perform a world premiere ballet on Friday evening; those willing can sing their hearts out on a new karaoke stage; and comic connoisseurs can enjoy a special comic book exhibit at MadCap Coffee. Additionally, Perrin Brewing Co. will debut an exclusive beer to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the festival.

“Because it is the 50th anniversary this year, the footprint is going to be richer and fuller and thicker,” Burdick expressed. “It’s going to be exciting —festival is truly for everyone.” 

What: Festival of the Arts
When: June 7, noon — 10 p.m.; June 8, 10 a.m. — 10 p.m.; June 9, 10 a.m. —6 p.m.
Where: Ottawa Street, Lyon Street, Ionia Street and Pearl Street
Cost: FREE


When she is not editing for WLM, Elyse enjoys traveling to far off lands, taking photos, listening to live music and spinning records.

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