For an artist, there’s nothing quite like looking into the eyes of someone who admires your work.
“We’re looking forward to seeing the customers that come up and say, ‘Oh, this is so beautiful,’ because they can only see this art at festivals,” said metal art sculptor Mike Beals, Best in Show award winner at the 2019 Utah Arts Festival.
“Artists get really energized by the caring thoughts and kind words the patrons offer,” he said. “It’s validating and motivates them to produce more for the next show.”
But the arrival of COVID-19 made it impossible to safely host the 70,000 people who usually browse artists’ booths, sample food and drink, enjoy live music, dance and more at the Utah Arts Festival in downtown Salt Lake City.
So organizers decided the festival will instead carry on its 44-year tradition of celebrating art with a new online event called Festival Vibes Fridays. It will feature an online marketplace for visual art, interviews and performances by musicians on KRCL 90.9 FM, online screenings of the Fear No Film festival and activities for kids.
The festival will begin Friday and will continue each Friday in June. Each arts discipline will be featured on the festival’s website, uaf.org.
Director Lisa Sewell had decided on March 27 to postpone the festival until 2021. But she started working with its artistic coordinators to find a way to “keep the festival vibes alive.”
They settled on putting together an online event, but didn’t want to stage it over the usual four consecutive days.
“We decided to do it every Friday in June because it’s the kickoff of summer and the festival is usually the gateway into summer activities,” Sewell said. “We thought it would be better to take advantage of every Friday instead of just trying to pretend nothing was different.”
While brainstorming ways to include the festival’s musicians, Sewell considered broadcasting live performances via Zoom. But she decided to partner with KRCL 90.9 to create a program where musicians could be interviewed and perform.
Fear No Film, the festival’s annual celebration of film, also will take a new approach. Three programs will be shown each weekend, and viewers must register beforehand to access the films. They’ll receive a code at 10 a.m. on Fridays and can watch the films online.
Derek Mellus, artistic coordinator for Fear No Film, was closing in on trimming the 440 submissions down to a 75-film slate when the in-person festival was canceled.
“It felt like, ‘Oh, so all that work was for nothing?’” Mellus said. “We thought about just calling off the films until next year, but the films are so relevant to the time. These are all pre-COVID films, so next year’s films will be completely different.”
Instead, Mellus was tasked with trying to convince the filmmakers who made the cut to keep their work in the festival. Filmmakers were worried about piracy and copyright protection; also, some film festivals will not consider works that have already been distributed online.
Eventually Mellus and the festival partnered with the Utah Film Center to use a professional Vimeo account that requires viewers to enter a password before seeing a film.
“Art and creativity always find a way. At first some of the filmmakers were not willing to take the risk of showing their work online, but after a couple of weeks, there was almost a sea change on a global scale,” Mellus said. “They realized it’s important to express oneself and get your work out there and not be inhibited by challenges, whether it’s a pandemic or something else.”
Visual artists are required each year to submit their work to be reviewed by a panel. Since submissions had already been juried for the 2020 festival, the team wanted to offer the 174 selected artists a new platform to sell their wares, albeit without any face-to-face interaction.
But the amount of web design required to create an online marketplace for all the artists was unfeasible. So only the 82 artists who have their own sites to sell their work online will be in the digital marketplace.
Sewell decided to automatically accept every artist who couldn’t be included in this year’s festival for 2021.
“The festival is about bringing the community together to support and celebrate the arts, but also to support the artists,” Sewell said. “We wanted to see how we could honor the work they’ve been doing. They’re all struggling and having a hard time trying to cobble together their finances.”
Painter Jennifer Seeley, the 2019 People’s Choice winner, estimates that more than half of her annual income comes from summer events. She had festivals and other shows booked every weekend until October, but has seen them all canceled due to COVID-19. She is selling her work from her online Etsy shop to supplement her income.
“I appreciate that the Utah Arts Festival is trying to do something to promote their artists in a different way, because a lot of festivals just canceled and that was it,” Seeley said. “They’re doing the best they can with what they have.”
Losing in-person festivals has shaken the financial stability of artists across the country. Beals said he knows artists who have to spend so much money on creating enough inventory to sell at a show that they sleep in their cars once there, in order to afford the fee needed to enter.
“The sad thing is that a great number of artists fall out of the business because they can’t make a living,” said Beals. “That term ‘starving artist’ is a very true one.”
Beals said that he’s made many friends through selling his sculptures. Seeley said she also will miss the interactions that made the festival weekend so special.
“I don’t think people really understand how much the festival is an outlet for artists, too,” Seeley said. “When I’m working at home from my studio I enjoy that, but it’s kind of isolating and I really look forward to getting out and connecting with people. There’s nothing quite like the wave of positive energy at these shows.”
Canceling the in-person event was as heartbreaking for the UAF staff as it was for the participating artists, Sewell said. She’s focused on how the festival can use lessons learned from this challenge in the future, she said, and encourages her staff to wear their festival shirts to maintain high morale.
“This has built the groundwork for us,” she said, “so that, once Festival Vibes Fridays is finished, we can continue to do this on a monthly basis as part of our annual presence in the community beyond the four-day festival in June.”
FESTIVAL VIBES FRIDAYS 2020
Festival Vibes Fridays, the digital alternative to the canceled 2020 Utah Arts Festival in downtown Salt Lake City, will run every Friday in June.
• A visual art marketplace will be available all month long, but different artists will be featured on the site each week. Last year’s award winners will be featured first, then artists will be highlighted according to medium. June 12: 2D, 3D, ceramics, digital drawing, fiber, graphics, jewelry, metalwork. June 19: Drawing, fiber, glass, graphics, jewelry. June 26: Painting, photography, sculpture, wearable, wood.
• Fear No Film will show three program slates each weekend, but patrons need to register beforehand, from the Fear No Film page under the Festival Vibes Fridays tab on uaf.org. They’ll receive a code that gives them access to the films all weekend long.
• Musicians will perform each Friday at 11 a.m. on KRCL 90.9’s Midday Show. Musicians will also be interviewed during the programs, and a recording of the show will be posted at uaf.org.
• In a literary arts interview series, author Danielle Susi-Dittmore will host poet Lisa Blackmore on June 5, Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal on June 12, author Ashley Farmer on June 19 and poet Katharine Coles on June 26. The interviews will begin at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast via Zoom. To register, click on the Literary Arts Performers page under the Festival Vibes Fridays page on uaf.org.
• Artist Maggie Willis will release pre-recorded videos, walking kids through art projects, each Friday on the site.
• The UAF site also will have comedy writing workshops, interactive and recorded poetry readings, other video performances by literary artists, poetry prompts and links to activities created by the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, and more.