Festival of the Arts returns but with different options

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Friday marks the return of a Grand Rapids summer tradition as a pandemic-modified Festival of the Arts takes place in Grand Rapids.

Perhaps the biggest change is that there won’t be any art on Calder Plaza. And while it is as much a part of Festival as the artwork and the music, there won’t be any food vendors on Ottawa Avenue.

Steepletown Neighborhood Services was among the many local nonprofits that routinely set up shop during the first weekend in June for Festival. It’s a big fundraiser, but it’s also more than that. The kabasa and kapusta it served up introduced many to the culture of the West Side.

“It’s so much fun to be able to introduce these flavors and these tastes of this culture, the Polish culture, West Side, to folks who just come down there,” Steepletown Neighborhood Services Executive Director Dick Bulkowski said. “It’s seeing festival from a different perspective, a different lens. You’re not moving around in the crowds, but you’re in the crowds. It’s just a lot of fun.”

After coronavirus canceled Festival last year, the unpredictability of the pandemic forced organizers to come up with a safer, more flexible plan this year.

“They made the best decision they could, the management of Festival, with the time frame,” Bulkowksi said.

By the time Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the lifting of restrictions on large outdoor gatherings effective June 1, it was too late to bring back the classic Festival format.

“Everyone thinks the circus can come to town just like that,” Festival of the Arts Executive Director David Abbott said. “It takes months and months of planning, where all of our volunteers could not have gotten together in a safe and effective manner to make sure that this could happen.”

Even with the changes, organizers believe history will repeat itself this year.

“Fifty years ago, when the Calder was erected and Festival first started, it was that group of arts people that really said, you know what, come back downtown. That’s where the energy is. So we’re doing that again,” Abbott said.

This summer’s Festival of the Arts has been dubbed Plein Air + Performance, with more than 100 artists working in the open air of downtown Grand Rapid’s social zones.

“We’ll have musicians playing up and down Monroe Center and Ottawa Avenue on Saturday,” Abbott said.

The piazza at Studio Park will host live music and awards Friday night.

Three city parks will be the site of children’s painting activities: 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at Richmond Park, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Riverside Park and 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Friday at MacKay-Jaycees Park.

“We will not be described by how we respond to the pandemic. We will be described by how the art comes alive in this community,” Abbott said.

While the nonprofits may lose out this year, there will be plenty of food options in the social zones.

“A lot of those restaurants were not able to open for the last year, and so we really want to come down and support the social zones of downtown and want everyone to come down and enjoy the vibrancy of downtown,” Abbott said.

Calder Plaza won’t be empty all summer. Festival plans a part two in September with a performance stage and artisan village on the plaza during the first week of ArtPrize. Organizers hope that holds everyone over until next year.

“Next year, June of 2022, we’ll be back in full force,” Abbott said.

If you still want a sampling of West Side cuisine, Stapletown Neighborhood Services will host A Taste of the West Side June 16. A limited number of tickets are still available.

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