Art Works Blog

Engaging with the Community: Arts Festivals

Washington, DC
By Sarah Sullivan, Senior Research Program Analyst

Julieta Venegas performing at SummerStage in Central Park, New York City. Photo by Jack Vartoogian(c)/FrontRowPhoto

The NEA recently released a report on outdoor arts festivals in the U.S. The three-volume report, Live from Your Neighborhood: A National Study of Outdoor Arts Festivals, provides a snapshot of outdoor arts festivals in this country, detailing the number of festivals that occurred, the types of events they held, and the number of artists they hired and employees and volunteers they engaged in 2009, among other things. The report also provides an in-depth look at seven festivals, exploring in particular the relationship between the festival and local community; the reasons why volunteers, artists, and audiences participate in and attend the events; and what makes festivals unique and special.

There are two major take-aways from the study. First, festivals are committed to presenting excellent and diverse art. This is demonstrated in the policies and procedures festivals put into place to ensure audiences have access to high quality and diverse arts experiences. And by diverse art, I mean the multiple genres, variety of aesthetic experiences, and different art forms on display at festivals. For many, festivals are a gateway to the arts: The artistic variety on display results in audiences being introduced to new types of art forms. At many of the case study sites, respondents noted that they not only saw new types of art but were inspired to seek out new arts experiences in the future.

The second major finding is that festivals are integrated with and engaged in their host communities. The majority of festivals occur in small to mid-sized communities (towns with 250,000 people or less) and have taken place in the same community for more than a decade. Additionally, festivals have a symbiotic relationship with communities. They provide the public easy and low-cost access to the arts, while also relying on their host communities. Festivals depend on funds and services from local government and businesses and are run by armies of local volunteers.

This study is the first of what we hope will be many studies on this important segment of the arts and culture industry. It expands our understanding of the field and serves as a foundation for future studies. To learn more, download the three-volume report.

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