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2014 Central PA Festival of the Arts

It’s no secret that Penn State football draws over 100,000 people to Happy Valley on home game weekends. But what event attracts even more people to the streets of State College?

In its 47th year, the Central Pennsylvania Arts Festival has become the crowning jewel of Happy Valley’s summer fun. This year’s ArtsFest will take place July 9-13 and is expected to draw over 125,000 people.

What exactly is ArtsFest?

ArtsFest is music – Dozens of talented musicians from all genres will perform on the five stages through out Downtown State College and Penn State’s campus.

ArtsFest is food – In addition to the downtown restaurants like the Allen Street Grill, Corner Room, and Kaarma Indian Cuisine, you’ll be able to find popular festival fare like gyros, Italian sausage, and kettle corn.

ArtsFest is shopping – Hundreds of artists line the streets selling jewelry, art, pottery, photography, and much more.

ArtsFest is the unofficial reunion weekend for former fraternity brothers, dorm mates, teammates, and old college pals to reconnect. Grab a drink on the patio of The Deli, play a round of golf at the Penn State Golf Courses, and book a block of rooms at the Nittany Lion Inn. There’s no better time to reconnect with old friends than at ArtsFest.

2014 Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts (ArtsFest) Details:

Dates: July 9-13, 2014

Learn more about the sidewalk sale and exhibition

Hotels: Find a place to stay in and around State College

All About the Central PA Festival of the Arts: History and Traditions

By Alan Finnecy

In the summer of 1967, more than 100,000 hippies dropped in on San Francisco for the “Summer of Love,” a freeform festival of music, art, and hanging out in Golden Gate Park. Across the continent, in State College, Pa., some Penn State professors and downtown merchants had a similar idea. In short order, they staged the first Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts in late July that year. Now in its 44th year, the Arts Festival has grown and changed since those early years to fit changing times and tastes.

A Festival is Born

Jules Heller, dean of Arts and Architecture at Penn State in 1967, and some of his faculty had been considering a summer festival to showcase the visual and performing arts. Downtown merchants, led by State College Chamber of Commerce president Wally Lloyd, were also casting about for a summer event that would bring people downtown during the sleepy summer months between spring commencement and fall football games. The two groups joined forces and in just a few months put together a week of art, films, and live music. Armed with donations and a $2,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a small band of dedicated volunteers built makeshift stages and suspended a colorful old parachute over the Allen Street stage. Pennsylvania’s Governor, Raymond Shafer, cut a string that unfurled a banner to mark the festival’s opening.

That first Arts Festival was confined to the block of South Allen Street between College and Beaver Avenues and the wall on the campus side of College Avenue. Penn State maintenance workers put up snow fence along the wall and artists were invited to display their work. Organizers wondered if anyone would show up. But from the start, the “sidewalk sale” and music proved to be crowd pleasers. Workers rushed to erect more fencing to accommodate the increasing numbers of artists who arrived each day. And photos from that first festival show a large crowd enjoying the local band “Robin and the Hoods,” a Beetles–inspired group, complete with mop–top haircuts and groovy clothes.

Sidewalk Sale

Of the Arts Festival’s core components, perhaps none has changed as much over the years as the sidewalk sale. The collection of artists exhibiting and selling their wares remained rather casual well into the 1970s. Penn State’s noted Hemmingway scholar, Sandra Spanier, then a State College High School English teacher and member of the Potters Guild, sold her pottery at several early festivals. “There were no covered booths back then,” she recalled. “We brought concrete blocks and wood to create shelves for the pottery and none of the artists took credit cards then either.” Visitors to those early pre–juried festivals also remember a wide range of “art” and crafts—from pottery and paintings to painted rocks and pot holders—on display. Today, more than 900 fine artists and craftsmen from across the country and abroad vie for the roughly 300 booth spaces in what is considered one of the country’s premier juried shows.

Festival Route and South Allen Street

Though the Arts Festival’s route has changed over time, the 100 block of South Allen Street, with its colorful temporary landscaping, has remained the epicenter. During early Festivals, wooden platforms lined the sloping street and people crowded around them to watch “Artists in Action.” The late Clyde Doll, a woodcarver, was a perennial favorite and a longtime supporter of the Festival. Porcelain artist Grace Pilato also demonstrated her technique to passersby. Ever mindful of the gridlock that can slow foot traffic to a crawl, organizers eventually moved the artist demonstrations to less crowded locales. But the popular Allen Street stage has stayed, though its exact location has varied, and the street is still landscaped for the occasion. Some years ago, the popular water feature—known to the bathing suit–clad kids who frequent it as “the buckets”—was added.

With the exception of the 100 block of South Allen Street, early Arts Festivals were mostly on campus. Artists’ booths lined both the Mall (extending up from South Allen), the Henderson Mall (extending up from Pugh Street), and the Wall on the campus side of College Avenue. That changed in 1978 when Penn State’s maintenance and service workers, represented by the Teamsters Local 8 labor union, went on strike during the summer. The Festival continued as planned, but with artists’ booths on downtown State College streets instead. The following summer’s festival used a combined town and campus route, allowing better foot traffic flow, a tradition that remains in place.

Traditions Then and Now

One of the oldest traditions associated with the Arts Festival is the running race held Sunday morning. The race dates to 1975 when it was a 10–mile event. By the late 1980s it was shortened to a 10K race (6.2 miles) and a 5K race (3.1 miles) was added in 2005. The event is Central Pennsylvania’s oldest race and is organized by the non-profit Nittany Valley Running Club. In 2006 it was named the Sue Crowe Memorial Arts Festival Races in honor of the late runner who was a five–time race winner, including three wins when it was a 10–miler.

Another person who’s sometimes running around the Arts Festival… and juggling… and generally making mischief is the Jester. This tradition comes and goes, probably depending on whether someone is willing to don tights and the Jester’s costume in the July heat. The first Jester was David Garfield, a 1979 graduate of Penn State’s theatre program. He served from 1983 through 1986, leading the parade on Children’s Day among other “duties” before handing the scepter to Kyle Shannon in 1987. Current Arts Festival executive director, Rick Bryant, said, “I think we had a Jester in 2006 but there are other periods where we haven’t had one. I can tell you that this year the Jester is on hiatus.”

One tradition that lasted several years in the late 1970s might be considered performance art today. At the time it was more of a curiosity. Kalin’s, a men’s and women’s clothing store on Allen Street where Webster’s (used books) and Connections (clothing) are located, drew large crowds by putting “live mannequins” in their windows during the festival. People passing by would stop to watch the fashionably dressed “mannequins” posing stiffly behind the glass. Some onlookers went to great lengths trying to get the mannequins to blink or laugh.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

From its 1960s beginnings, through its growing pains and sometimes quirky traditions, the Arts Festival has become a midsummer’s juggernaut far beyond the wildest dreams of those 1967 organizers. “The festival pumps $14 million into the local economy and fills 6,000 hotel rooms,” Bryant said. It attracts more than 125,000 visitors—many of them Penn State alumni—and costs around $500,000 to produce. This year’s festival starts with Children and Youth Day on July 9; the main festival runs July 10-13.

Alan Finnecy is a longtime Happy Valley resident and freelance writer.

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