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ArtsFest Goes Virtual In Response To COVID-19

(Logo design courtesy Springfield Regional Arts Council)

The 40th anniversary of a springtime tradition in Springfield is yet another casualty of social distancing caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  ArtsFest on Walnut Street 2020 was scheduled to take place this Saturday and Sunday, May 2nd and 3rd, in the Walnut Street Historic District between South National Avenue and John Q. Hammons Parkway.  Patrons could have expected to see more than a hundred artists and craftspeople lining the street displaying and selling their creations, half a dozen performance stages featuring some 75 or 80 performing acts, and numerous food vendors.  But not this year.                    

Instead, ArtsFest organizers—the Springfield Regional Arts Council and the Downtown Springfield Association—have taken the festival online. “Virtual ArtsFest” will go live on Friday May 1st at and continue for a full week, through Thursday May 7.

According to Arts Council Executive Director Leslie Forrester, “Virtual ArtsFest was an idea that the Arts Council staff, in collaboration with the Downtown Springfield Association, kind of dreamed up after we had to make the really tough decision to postpone ArtsFest on Walnut Street. We would be celebrating our 40th anniversary this very weekend if we weren’t in the middle of the pandemic.

“So we, first of all, really wanted to find a way that we could support the artists that would normally be on the street. Many of those artists are local, but are also travelling all over the country, typically, doing a festival every weekend—and that’s their source of income. And, including our event, most of their income has just gone away entirely.  So, number one priority was finding ways that we could support artists in a time that is incredibly difficult for them, as it is for so many other people.  Knowing that there was no way that we were going to be able to get together with groups of people, we thought about ways we could make this ‘virtual’ and do this online—to celebrate artists, and to support the Arts Council, to support the Downtown Springfield Association, and also, hopefully, to generate a little bit of income for our Arts Relief and Recovery Fund that we just established a few weeks ago.”

The public is asked to contribute a $5 “admission charge”—exactly what one would pay for entrance to the “real” ArtsFest on Walnut Street—in order to access the various Virtual ArtsFest elements online.  “That $5 will be shared revenue with the Arts Council and the Downtown Springfield Association. And a portion of it will also go to that Artist Relief Fund that we’re building to support arts organizations locally, as well as individual artists.”

Of course, cramming more than a hundred artists’ booths, not to mention five performance stages, into an online platform was a daunting task. “Yes,” Forrester said with a chuckle, “it has certainly presented a lot of challenges. I’ve got an amazing staff who are dreaming up new ways to do something that’s never been done—at least in terms of the Arts Council’s history. We kind of had to turn the whole thing on a dime so quickly. So it took us a little while to figure out logistically ‘how do we do this? How do you do ArtsFest from a computer?’ So, (we were) totally trying to re-think, reframe how we think about ArtsFest, which we’ve been doing in some form for 40 years. It took us a little while to think through what is the most logical way, not only for us to present it, but for people to actually view it and have a good experience with it.”

Your $5 “admission” to the online Artsfest will provide, among other things, access to information about all the artists who would have had booths on Walnut Street this weekend, along with images of their work; also, contact information including their websites or other online presence they may have. “So in theory you could still shop, but shop online, and reach out to those artists and still purchase those beautiful earrings or that wonderful painting that you might have seen in person,” said Forrester. “And then, part of your $5 ‘entrance,’ if you will, gets you access to special performances.” Organizers were not able to provide for all the performances that would have taken place on Walnut Street—Forrester estimated there were to be 75 or 80 performances during ArtsFest 2020 weekend. Instead, Forrester said, “we’ve kind of highlighted a couple of different local musicians who are willing to share their wonderful talents with us—even remotely.” They will present a total of four local performers online during the week.

The artists at ArtsFest sometimes demonstrate their artistic techniques in their booths during the festival for anyone passing by, and the “virtual” version will still provide that opportunity—and more besides. “The cool thing about this,” said Leslie Forrester, “is that you might not have normally been able to see where an artist might have been creating the work. A lot of that is so interesting. You see the final product on the street, but how does it come to be?  It doesn’t just appear on the canvas or on the shelf. So several of the artists are also doing some of their own recording from their studios. So you can see how that mug was made, or that special sculpture was created—a cool way to get to know those artists.  And that’s really the beautiful part of ArtsFest, is that you could just shop on the street, but you also get to know those artists a little bit more, and their stories. And so now you get a chance to see inside their studio.

For Artsfest patrons to pay their $5 “admission fee,” the Arts Council will use the same Donorview secure online donor payment system that they’ve been using for a couple of years. “It’s a really slick process, it’s not too complicated,” said Forrester. “And if you want to make a further donation there’s going to be an easy ‘donation’ button there as well. Again, all proceeds are supporting the Arts Council, the D.S.A., and most importantly, all of our wonderful artists of various kinds. It’s going to be a really fun weekend.” Well, a full week, actually, as Forrester admitted.  “For even more time to have fun at ArtsFest!”

Plans are in the works for a live-in-person ArtsFest later this year.  The Arts Council and Downtown Springfield Association formed an “Artsfest 2020 Task Force” to make plans to combine Artsfest with the fall festival Cider Days on Walnut Street with the combined event scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, September 19 and 20, 2020.  ArtsFest is expected to return to Historic Walnut Street May 1st and 2nd, 2021. Check or call the Arts Council at 862-ARTS (2787) for updates.

Randy Stewart joined the full-time KSMU staff in June 1978 after working part-time as a student announcer/producer for two years. His job has evolved from Music Director in the early days to encompassing production of a wide range of arts-related programming and features for KSMU, including the online and Friday morning Arts News. Stewart assists volunteer producers John Darkhorse (Route 66 Blues Express), Lee Worman (The Gold Ring), and Emily Higgins (The Mulberry Tree) with the production of their programs. He's also become the de facto "Voice of KSMU" in recent years due to the many hours per day he’s heard doing local station breaks. Stewart’s record of service on behalf of the Springfield arts community earned him the Springfield Regional Arts Council's Ozzie Award in 2006.