The state’s oldest arts festival will take a hiatus this year in order to reinvent itself.
The 38th annual CenterFest Arts Festival will be held not in September (as the event Website still erroneously states) but in 2012, officials with the Durham Arts Council and partner organizations announced this morning.
“We want to reshape it and grow it into something even more exciting that reflects the tremendous creativity going on in Durham today,” Sherry DeVries, the executive director of the council, said at the announcement.
So what does that mean in practical terms? The expanded event will feature an enlarged name — tentatively, CenterFest: Festival of Arts, Music, Food and Creativity. That reflects what should be a broader palette of attractions.
“Edible arts” will be among the added features, showcasing the city’s foodie culture as well as local brews and beer gardens and in-state wineries. Organizers also want to add hands-on features such as arts and fine craft demonstrations; more entertainment stages and venues; a Saturday-night “music party”; and “showcases for design, gaming and technology arts.”
“There’s so many cool, creative things happening in Durham right now,” DeVries said. “We want to incorporate as many of those things as we possibly can in this process.”
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Community input sessions over the next 12 months will help shape the festival’s future. If successful, it could expand Durham’s reputation as a dynamic home for artists and the arts.
“We look forward to this dynamic process of seeing what we can become as a major, major arts festival for this region,” DeVries said.
Shelly Green, the head of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that the arts council and its allies aren’t interested in modeling CenterFest after Asheville’s Bele Chere or any other existing event.
“We’re here to make sure that we take everything that is Durham and put it into a celebration that we can all be really proud of and just show the rest of the state and the Southeast and the world that Durham really is where great things happen,” Green said.
City Council member Mike Woodard, Downtown Durham Inc. marketing and communications director Matthew Coppedge and Durham Economic and Workforce Development director Kevin Dick also participated in Thursday’s press conference. Their presence signaled that some major Bull City boosters believe an expanded CenterFest really can elevate Durham’s profile and spur visits and spending by out-of-towners.
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“We know that there’s a very strong convergence of creative jobs and creatively-based commerce within the city,” Dick said. “And we know that events like CenterFest can continue to drive the momentum and build — build upon the emergence of our outstanding reputation as a haven for food and great arts.”
“With the new energy we have in downtown, now is the time to plan for a larger, more uniquely Durham event — one that feeds off downtown’s environs,” Coppedge said.
“Arts and culture are key to what makes Durham’s quality of life, and it’s also a key reason too why visitors come to Durham,” Green said.
And Green should know. The Convention and Visitors Bureau studies the economic impact of six annual Durham arts and cultural events: CenterFest, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (typically held in April), the Festival for the Eno (held in conjunction with Independence Day), the American Dance Festival (taking place now through July 23), the Bull Durham Blues Festival (scheduled for Sept. 9-10 this year) and the World Beer Festival (Oct. 8).
Last year, those events collectively generated more than $12 million in visitor spending and $328,000 in local tax revenue.
The bureau found that some 6,000 non-residents came to CenterFest each of the last two years, spending about $400,000 in 2009 and $475,000 in 2010. Transforming CenterFest a regional attraction, of course, should only make those numbers grow.
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This will hardly be the first major change that CenterFest has seen. It began in 1974 as a one-day Street Arts Celebration staged on Main and Chapel Hill streets. It added a second day in 1981 and gained its CenterFest name three years later. In 1991, the festival introduced a classical music component and was held the same weekend as the Durham Blues Festival.
The festival and its sponsoring organization made their homes downtown when it was a place that most people shunned, not a point of pride for the city.
In 2005, streetscape construction — a project that helped make downtown more attractive — prompted the festival to relocate to West Village. From 2006 onward, it’s been held in the Central Park area.
Those recent editions featured an average attendance of 20,000, some 125 visual artists, 26 performing groups including more than 200 participants, a children’s area, and more than 30 nonprofit and government services booths.
The upgraded CenterFest will likely exceed the geographic and numeric bounds of past years. Green suggested that it will help expose Durham’s downtown to more locals and out-of-towners who have yet to see the blooming city center.
As Kevin Davis noted this morning, with Bele Chere attracting 15 times more visitors than CenterFest, there’s a lot of room for added exposure — and a lot of potential for pumping additional dollars into the local economy.
It’s worth noting that when Green’s agency examined CenterFest before it moved to the Central Park area — specifically, a parking lot there — the event drew more people. Counting local and other visitors, there were 37,000 attendees in 2003 and 30,000 in 2005. That compares to 18,000 attendees — again, counting locals and others — in 2009 and 18,500 in 2010. However, the bureau did not calculate economic impact back then, and Green warns that the those attendance numbers are much less reliable than figures from more recent years.
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Of course, arts festivals are about more than business. They’re also about — well, the arts.
That’s what excited local legend Chuck Davis about the coming CenterFest expansion. He expects it to offer more opportunities to see local performances inspired by faraway cultures.
“There are ethnic groups from all over the world relocating to Durham,” said Davis, the head of an African-American dance company that bears his name and is based at the arts council headquarters at 120 Morris St. “With them, they’re bringing their history, and their history is recorded in their art. So they’ll be sharing all of this beautiful energy.”
Asked about his favorite CenterFest memory, Davis recalled a performance where his troupe brought so many members — and so much exuberance — that the stage began to sway under their weight.
“The way we got over it was we danced over to the edge and we jumped off,” he recalled with a chuckle. “We jumped off, but the drums never stopped. And even as each dancer jumped off, everything was taken care of in the community.
“And what we have found [is] that this, the CenterFest crowd — they are more open, they are more open than a lot of these other ventures you might have around. And by being open, that means we can do our call and response, we can do our getting all of the audience involved in what is going on.”
Davis approves of the festival organizers and partners taking a year to lay plans for the expansion with community input. Rushing the growth process would have been like staging a dance recital after just one rehearsal.
This way, Davis said, “All of the other entities will know what the rhythms are.”
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During his remarks, Woodard reminisced about walking for so many hours during past CenterFests that his feet got blistered. “The arts council was downtown before downtown was cool,” he said. “And it really — the arts council building and CenterFest provided the downtown anchor, arts anchor, for many years.”
Richard Wilson has his own fond memories of CenterFest. The Greenville resident, a painter, first came to the event about five years ago. He got such a strong response that he’s returned every year since.
“People seem very artsy” in Durham, Wilson said. “I don’t know what it is, but I didn’t find it in other places in North Carolina.”
A CenterFest that draws a bigger crowd should mean bigger business for Wilson, who had several of his paintings on display in the Durham Arts Council lobby during the announcement. That will enable Wilson to cut back on his national travels.
“If I could find more collectors here in my home state, that’d make it even better for me and my family,” he said.
And like the other CenterFest supporters, Wilson believes the expanded festival will help Durham’s assets make a big impression on visitors.
“I think they’ll be surprised at the artists, the talent that they have right here in North Carolina,” he said.
But Wilson has another objective — a loftier and more personal goal — that the supersized CenterFest should be able to help him achieve.
“I started [painting] when I was 8 years old, and I wish I had seen how other artists made a living doing this,” he said. “Because a lot of times, kids, they don’t see the opportunity. They don’t see the opportunity to take that option or make a living. And if they can see a living artist, I think that that will open their eyes up to art.”
Clearly, a lot of important things are riding on the future of CenterFest. It should be interesting to see what the organizers — and everyone else in the city who takes part in the process — come up with in 2012.