It’s been three years since the Utah Arts Festival held its traditional four days in late June. It might sound like a simple process of getting back to normal, except that Utah Festival of the Arts executive director Aimée Dunsmore isn’t quite sure what that word “normal” means anymore in terms of organization of the festival.
“To some degree, since 2019, it doesn’t seem normal at all,” Dunsmore says. “It’s like relearning, in a way, since we did things a little differently [in 2021]. It goes back to “How did we do that when we did four days and we had the same site size and the same number of headliners?” So there’s a little learning curve that I don’t think any of us expected. We thought we were going to get back to normal, and it would be easy.”
Challenges of all kinds have been a reality for arts organizations of all kinds over the past two years, and the Utah Arts Festival is no different. The 2021 incarnation of the event has been moved to August, with a reduced size and scope, drawing around 30,000 total attendees from the 65,000 to 70,000 in a typical pre-COVID year. While Dunsmore still thinks it was the right move at the time, based on stakeholder feedback and expectations for declining COVID numbers, it was clear the one-time change would not be repeated.
“It turned out to be early in the Delta surge, plus we had fires and the air quality was terrible. There were a number of factors that hit us hard. last year,” Dunsmore said. “[August is] not the easiest time of year for us. School is back and there are a number of events that usually take place that month. I prefer June; that’s where we belong, and I think where people want us.”
Going back to June, however, did not necessarily require going back to business as usual. Dunsmore and his team saw the flux and upheaval of the COVID era as an opportunity to be thoughtful and creative about what they wanted the next evolution of the Utah Festival of the Arts to look like.
“Just because we did things one way in 2019 doesn’t mean we have to do things that way now in 2022,” she says. “It kind of gave us the opportunity to say, ‘Of course, we did it this way, but is it the most effective, is there more opportunity, is there there something different we could do? …COVID kind of gave us permission to reevaluate and be open and flexible.
“I feel like I used that term a lot in 2021, but I guess we had this idea of ’if we’re going to fail, let’s fail forward’. So let’s try something new. Let’s take a risk. Because that we can’t be the same festival that we have been for 46, 47 years.”
One such innovation for 2022 is an emerging artists program, which is in part an attempt to open up access to artists who may not have had the opportunity to be featured at festivals. previous ones. “With the evolution of the community and everything that has happened over the past two years, so much has happened in our community – not just COVID, but social justice, equality, inclusivity and diversity,” Dunsmore said. “We can’t turn our heads away from that, because I think art has always been at the forefront of social change.”
Inclusion efforts also took various other forms this year. The 2022 festival will include an increased presence of ASL performers, both on the Word stage and even for some musical performances. Dunsmore also mentions opening up the judging process for applicants across all areas of the festival, allowing more voices to be heard on what should be represented at the festival. “We’ve never done this before, but that’s where the decisions are made,” she says. “It helps us get more feedback on our process. … The point of all of this is I want to make sure people see themselves in our programming.”
Making change always requires a leap of faith, and it’s not the only leap of faith required when planning the 2022 festival. Unsurprisingly, the upheaval of the past two years has impacted UAF’s budgeting , since 60% of revenues come from on-site ticket sales. While it would have been easy to fall back and organize a more limited version of the festival, the UAF board instead dipped into its financial reserves so that the budget allowed for a festival close to what the things looked like before COVID.
“It took away a bit of what I wanted to do that was new, but to focus on our core programs and basically bring them back to 2019 or higher levels, that was the goal,” Dunsmore said. “It draws in the audience and sets up next year for people to say, ‘I can’t believe I missed that. “”