Nelson Perez, right, of Vodka Bacon Studios chats with a guest during Artsfest 2021. The popular outdoor festival returns for its 41st year May 7-8.

This article is part of The Arts & Culture Reporting Corps, sponsored by the Springfield Regional Arts Council. 

Artsfest, held annually in May on Historic Walnut Street, is a welcomed tradition for thousands of Springfield area residents. Featuring hundreds of artists, plus live entertainment and a variety of food trucks, this event has become a mainstay since it started in 1981. On average, more than 20,000 people walk the streets during Artsfest weekend. 

This year Artsfest is held Saturday, May 7, and Sunday, May 8, with 90 artists from across the country showcasing their work under the theme “Art Unites.” The festival is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days.

Springfield-based artist Kendra Miller will be one of the 90, rejoining from previous years. “I remember walking booth to booth as a child with my Grandma and thinking ‘I want to do this someday,’” Miller said. “And here I am.”

New art, new branding on display

Miller is excited to debut new original paintings alongside some of her more popular items like Harry Potter prints and stickers. She is returning this year after a brief hiatus and says she is looking forward to showing again.

“I can’t wait to see some familiar faces.”

Miller’s colorful and pop-culture-inspired art, often featured at Culture Flock, is also the centerpiece of 2022’s Artsfest branding.

“The incredible organizers for Artsfest asked Culture Flock if we would be interested in taking on designing the event poster for 2022 and of course we jumped at the chance,” she said.

Miller and Culture Flock co-owner Brittany Bilyeu came up with a bright color palette and created the final concept digitally. The design will be featured prominently on this year’s poster and t-shirt, which have become collectibles for some Artsfest-goers.

Volunteers needed

Volunteer coordinator Anna Squires is one of the many who is already excited about this year’s shirt.

“They’re really cute,” she said. “And volunteers who work more than one shift get a shirt for free — as well as my eternal gratitude.” 

It takes hundreds of volunteers to keep the festival running smoothly.

“We have roles for everyone,” Squires said.

Anyone interested in a shift, which runs about three hours, can sign up online. The big areas of need are always running the entrance gates, selling drinks at the Coke stands and helping out the visiting artists.

“Artist helpers are a huge perk to our artists,” Squires said. “We have about ten volunteers who concentrate on working with the artists, going to their booth to sit while they need a break, grab them some food or water, or help answer any questions,” Squires said.

She added that based on consistent artist feedback, Artsfest is known for being unbelievably accommodating and friendly.

Crowds enjoy Artsfest on Walnut Street in 2017. (Photo: Springfield Regional Arts Council)

The perks of being an artist

Another artist perk is the variety of awards given. This year, $5,000 in cash will be awarded to artists by a three-person jury.

“Awards are generously donated by community members and business leaders who have been collectors, patrons and long-time festival supporters,” said Leslie Forrester, executive director of the Springfield Regional Arts Council (SRAC). “Recognizing the spectacular work on display is a great incentive for artists to come back year after year.”

Art categories include Best in Show, Best 2-D and 3-D, the Jan Horton Memorial Award and the Virginia Bussey Memorial Award. 

Supporting the SRAC’s mission

Hosted by the SRAC, Artsfest is the nonprofit’s largest annual fundraiser, bringing in anywhere from $35,000 to $50,000 in revenue.

“The proceeds from Artsfest help support the SRAC’s mission of transforming lives and enriching the community through the arts,” Forrester said. “This includes funding education programs for under-served students, collaborating on marketing efforts for the larger arts community and putting together professional development opportunities for artists and teachers.”

Some of these programs include exhibitions at The Creamery Arts Center and Sky Gallery, hosting educational conferences and advocating on city, state and national levels for the arts.

Forrester adds that some years, depending on the weather, the SRAC can bring in over $50,000. Weather is the one part of the festival that the SRAC can’t control. Aside from that, Artsfest has been a collaboration between organizations, business leaders, and volunteers for decades. 

“We started planning this year’s festival in December 2021,” said Jennifer Moseley, events manager for the Downtown Springfield Association (DSA).

The DSA is a crucial part of organizing the event, working in conjunction with the SRAC to help plan, promote and carry out the logistics of Artsfest.

“This partnership began more than 20 years ago,” Forrester said. “The SRAC hires the DSA to help with the bulk of the management and operations of Artsfest, so we can spend half the year working on additional mission-driven projects.”

Artist Kendra Miller will sell her colorful designs at Artsfest on Walnut Street, May 7-8. (Photo: Springfield Regional Arts Council)

Preparing to party safely

In the weeks leading up to the festival, one of Moseley’s big tasks is prepping Walnut Street. This includes walking up and down the stretch of Walnut between JQH Parkway and National Avenue with a can of spray paint, marking out spots for artist booths and vendors.

The organizers also have a short window to erect stages and put up signage, ensure that artists are checked in and set up in a timely manner, and that trash and utilities are available. Then, Forrester says, they have to return the street to the way they found it by Sunday night.

“We have a great team at the Downtown Springfield Association. They, along with our volunteers, are a critical part of making it all work,” she said.

This year, Moseley says they are maintaining some safety protocols put in place last year due to the pandemic. Booths will be six feet apart, and there will be multiple hand-sanitizing stations and timed entries for attendees.

“It at least feels as if we are getting back to a more ‘normal’ Artsfest,” Moseley said. 

The pandemic created multiple challenges in 2020 and 2021, but one of the lingering obstacles is that many artists have retired from traveling to festivals. Forrester says that a few of the ones she looks forward to seeing every year are not participating in shows anymore. For those that are returning, Forrester says it feels like a big reunion.

“Some of the artists at the festival come from out of town, so I only see them once a year. I also love talking with local artists about what they’ve been working on lately.”

Ensuring artists’ success is another big factor in Artsfest planning. Forrester says that Artsfest is a great weekend to enjoy the spring weather and look at art. She adds that the artists who show up are also running a business, so purchasing art is a big need for the vendors and part of what keeps the artists returning every year. 

Art for all

Squires, who has been leading the volunteers since 2007, says that one of the best parts of the festival is how it makes art accessible.

“People can just walk the street and look at art,” she said. “I just love that.” 

“Year after year, one of the important audiences we love to reach are the kids,” Forrester said.

This year, children of all ages can join in on some creative fun by making personalized art projects in the Kids Area. Forrester says they are giving away t-shirts that say “Future Artist.” Children can tie-dye them there at the festival and bring them home immediately.

Forrester says that despite the hard work and months of planning, there is always a sense of joy during Artsfest — regardless of the weather.

“All of the hard work pays off once we get rolling,” she said.

Nicole Chilton

Nicole Chilton is a Springfield-based artist, writer, and arts advocate. She graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia’s School of Journalism and writes for a variety of online and print publications. Her most recent work, “How Dreams Speak,” is available where books are sold. More by Nicole Chilton