If you live in Grand Rapids, you probably went to Festival of the Arts this weekend—if you didn't, you at least know of the event. Colloquially known as Festival, the occasion is meant to generate support for the arts and has been attempting to do so for more than four decades. According to organizers, the event brings hundreds of thousands of people downtown each year so that the artists of West Michigan can be showcased. But in recent years, it seems that the celebration originally intended to honor the installation of Alexander Calder's La Grand Vitesse (you know it: that big, red piece of metalwork in the government district) has devolved into rampant gluttony, cheap entertainment, and overly priced artwork.
A very close friend said that I should start this piece off with the following sentence: "Approaching the Festival of the Arts, you are immediately greeted by a pungent odor that can only be created by flash-cooking cheap sausage, the startling howl of overly passionate cover bands, and the heedless caterwaul of incompetent children as they wander the streets like lost drunkards." Her poetic diatribe is remarkably accurate, so accurate in fact that my critique—oh yes, this most certainly is a critique—is basically an extension of the words she shared with me.
Food, Food, and More Food (But Was It Any Good?)
As I first turned onto Ottawa Avenue, I was bombarded by a section of grills filled to the brim with meat: not a rare sight at Festival. The accompanying smoke sent the scent of seared flesh and grease into the air. To some this may sound enticing, even to me on occasion, but if you find this disgusting, you should have options. With more than two dozen food booths, one would think that there would be sustenance for everyone, particularly for those that call themselves what I call myself: a vegetarian. But one would be mistaken: Only two of the 26 booths were listed as vegetarian-friendly and even then, the pickings were slim. Trust me, being a vegetarian does not mean that one does not love food: I live for food and have been known to inhale anything delicious (yes, kids, vegetables can be delicious). Being a vegetarian does mean feeling—and going—hungry at times like this, especially if you don't feel like eating egg rolls, deep-fried cream cheese, or something sweetened to the point that your teeth begin to conspire against you.
Instead of gorging ourselves at Festival like so many others, my friends and I chose to avoid the booths, probably because there are a number of truly great establishments providing nourishment to the residents of Grand Rapids. Despite this fact, not one of the booths was ran by a group directly associating itself with any sort of cookery. As has been in the past, the food was prepared by a random concoction of individuals, volunteers from whatever organization that ran each booth. Of course, not all of these groups know what they're doing when it comes to food, they're just trying to raise money for their various causes, and because of this, things can get a little less than kosher. For instance, a clearly non-Hispanic church serving Mexican food last year had its entire crew dressed in sombreros and ponchos, debatably tinging the festivities (and their food) with a dash of racism. But few festival-goers have the sense to be bothered by such things, instead busy with the many prevalent distractions.
When Did a Free Art Festival Get So Expensive?
Those distractions included places for children and adults to glue and paint, a pop-up printmaking studio, a sidewalk to cover in chalk, and six stages for bands and dance academies to show their stuff. While a quote from Festival's website said that “all performances and activities [were] free” (and the aforementioned items were just that), I had every chance to empty my wallet into the hands of others. The food vendors were bad, but the art vendors were even worse, asking for excessive amounts of money for products I had seen (and purchased) on the Internet for a third of the price.
With all the hustle and bustle, I had no idea that the UICA hosted a regional arts exhibition while the GRAM highlighted young creatives. This was where artists were most likely to be showcased, this was where Festival was hopefully living up to its name and history. But I was robbed of seeing either of these with my own eyes, victimized by the chaotic diversions that now sadly overshadow the original intentions of Festival. Instead, I was surrounded by incessancy, largely in the form of parents dragging children from station to station while sampling food along the way, keeping the kids entertained with glue and balloon animals.
Give Me Art or Give Me Death
Honestly, the whole event felt tired and obnoxiously familiar: seems that if you've been to one Festival over the past few years, you've been to them all. It's safe to say that little has changed from year to year, some food vendors even being located in the exact same location as previous iterations. It's sad to see the potential of Festival turn to stale waste—I wish I knew how to fix it, but like so many other naysayers, I don't have a cogent answer. Maybe we can blame ArtPrize for the straying of Festival's spotlight from art (we blame it for enough, especially when it's happening). Or maybe we can just chalk it up to another situation where I just didn't have enough discretion to sort the gems hiding within the cacophony from the rest of the mess. But for all I know, the art exhibitions may not have been gems at all. It's too late to find out now.
--Matt Knaack lives in Grand Rapids and occasionally blogs for AMN.