Georgia Southern University’s art department announced earlier this month that it will no longer host the ArtsFest, which provided a spring day of senses-filling and hands-on art experiences to children and parents for more than 30 years.
But this week, the Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks and Recreation Department is expressing interest in hosting ArtsFest with help from the university, and keeping the event in its traditional place on Georgia Southern’s Sweetheart Circle.
When Professor Robert Farber, chair of the Betty Foy Sanders Department of Art, issued the end-of-sponsorship announcement Jan. 5, he hoped it would spur one or more organizations to pick up the torch, he said.
“I was hopeful that somebody in the community, maybe another arts organization, would see it as an opportunity, and maybe it would be more in alignment with their mission, or maybe a couple of organizations would come together that would take ownership of it,” Farber said in an interview last week. “That hasn’t happened. I’ve had a few calls.”
He mentioned getting a call from Parks and Recreation, and the newspaper learned more this week about the recreation department’s interest. Farber also mentioned the Averitt Center for the Arts, but he and the center’s director talked about working together on different kinds of art outreach in the community, instead of continuing the ArtsFest as such.
A big undertaking
Most years, ArtsFest has been held on a Saturday in April in the tree-covered park known as Sweetheart Circle. Last year, the threat of rain prompted a move to the Center for Art and Theatre and the Marvin Pittman Visual Arts Building. Much of the festival was held inside, but portions remained just outside the buildings.
The 2015 festival, billed as the 33rd annual, advertised 25 “art stops.” These are activity stations, often staffed by GSU students, where children make art or have art made for them. Some of last year’s planned stops offered papermaking, sand art, T-shirt tie-dying, clay creations, geometric tiling, paper sculptures, henna-based skin drawings, and ART’chery, where visitors used a bow to shoot paint-filled balloons. That’s about one-third of the list.
ArtsFest also includes a vendor fair. Last year 15 artists and arts organizations were listed for the Artist Market, and there were six food and beverage vendors. Meanwhile, six group performances were lined up for the stage show, among them the Averitt Center’s Statesboro Youth Ballet, soul and funk band Those Cats and the Pladd Dot School of Rock and Roll.
Attendance varies with weather, but ArtsFest draws several thousand people annually.
“That’s in essence one of the issues,” Farber said. “The size, scale and scope have gotten to the point where the department just can’t effectively manage it given our resources. So it’s very difficult for us to continue. It was a difficult decision.”
In recent years, the university has budgeted the art department about $6,650 annually for the event, Farber said. Last year’s cost was nearly $11,400. The department had to subsidize the project while awaiting revenue such as vendor fees and T-shirt and concession sales, but eventually netted about $1,700, Farber said.
Because the festival is a community service, “the budget was not a primary issue,” he said.
But salaries were not included in those cost totals. The department provided the work of a full-time staff member, namely the chair’s assistant, plus the time of a graduate assistant working 20 hours a week on the project for four or five months, Farber said.
Farber, who has been with the art department since 2014, said it appears to have had an additional staff member who handled the festival and planned other events in earlier years.
A changing mission
Through the early 2000s, the event was called the Youth Arts Festival, and as of last year it was still geared mainly to families with young children. Farber said the focus has been on activities for children from prekindergarten through middle school.
But the mission of the Betty Foy Sanders Department of Art has evolved, which is another reason he cited for giving up the festival.
In past decades, the department offered a Bachelor of Science in art education, Farber said. But that teacher-oriented degree was dropped, and the department now offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in art history and studio art, Bachelor of Fine Arts in two-dimensional and three-dimensional art and graphic design, and Master of Fine Arts degrees.
“It’s a more professional practice, studio-oriented program ...,” Farber said. “It’s a whole different set of course offerings and degrees, and the goals of the department have changed over that same period of time.”
When his announcement on the GSU website said the department was “actively engaged in conversations with an area arts organization” interested in its own spring festival, the obvious guess was the Averitt Center for the Arts. Since its opening season 11 years ago, the Averitt Center has been involved in the ArtsFest every year, providing art stops and coordinating the stage performances.
“The Averitt Center doesn’t have the capacity to put together a full-fledged arts festival like the one at Georgia Southern University,” Averitt Center Executive Director Tim Chapman said when called more than a week ago. “However, we value that product and the Averitt Center in conjunction with the university and other arts-related organizations in town will be exploring alternatives.”
Georgia Southern’s art department and the Averitt Center are looking at partnering “on more contemporary art, high school-oriented experiences” for students and teachers,” Farber said. He said he is interested in building dual-enrollment programs so local high school students can get college credit for art classes.
Meanwhile, the Statesboro Regional Art Association had not been involved in the ArtsFest discussion, but would like to be, said Glenn Haynes, the artist group’s 2016 president. Besides exhibiting art, association members have operated a hands-on watercolor table as a popular art stop at the festival.
“We certainly would be interested to know what’s going on, and we probably would offer help as we could,” Haynes said. “But it’s a big undertaking as GSU has done it, and we couldn’t imagine how to begin replacing something like that.”
But Farber had received a call from Broni Gainous, marketing and communications coordinator for Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks and Recreation. In an email reply to the newspaper Tuesday, Gainous said the recreation department is considering hosting the Arts Fest at Sweetheart Circle, if it can get help from the university and other organizations. She had asked for a meeting later this week with Farber.
“We’d love to see ArtsFest continue, especially on Sweetheart Circle, and would love to help be a driving force behind this happening,” Gainous said. “At this time, we are just asking to meet with GSU and see what assistance they can provide.”
Whether an ArtsFest could happen this spring remains to be seen.
"We hope to continue with 2016, but that will depend on the assistance we can receive and the timeline involved with getting students and clubs on board,” Gainous said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.