Five years ago, Arts in the Heart moved from the dirt lots off Reynolds Street to its new home on Broad Street between 7th and 10th and, since then, the annual festival has experienced phenomenal growth.
This weekend, when crowds converge downtown, they’ll be treated to cuisine from 25 countries and/or ethnic groups, up from last year’s 20. One hundred and thirty artisans will populate the fine arts and crafts market, the same number as last year when they significantly upped the number of booths.
In 2014, organizers at the Greater Augusta Arts Council added the Perry Jazz Stage which will return this year. That brings the number of stages filled with nonstop entertainment to five. And the Family Area has, in recent years, become a destination for everyone rather than a niche.
Could all of this really have happened simply because of a change in scenery? Yes and no, says Arts Council Director of Outreach Sallie West, who also serves as director of the fine arts and crafts market for the festival.
“It’s not simple, it’s comfort,” West said. “I was never in the dirt, but, from what I’ve heard, it was dusty if it wasn’t raining and, if it was raining, it was muddy. It was never fun in the dirt.”
Just as the change of venue signaled that the festival was important to local residents, the arts council has made sure that the festival gets the recognition it deserves outside the Augusta area.
“There’s a publication called Sunshine Artists Magazine and it’s a well-respected publication in the field,” West said. “Somehow we’ve gotten on the radar of Sunshine Artists and it’s a huge deal because it’s what artists read. Three years ago we debuted on their top 200 list (of best festivals) at 73, I think, and then we were 67 and now, this year, we made No. 50. “
In addition, an Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau grant gives the council $20,000 to advertise Arts in the Heart outside of the CSRA, and the organization’s events allows the staff to network with event and travel writers.
All that networking, advertising and recognition is paying off, West says, in the caliber of artist attracted to the festival. This year, artisans representing Hawaii, Wisconsin and Arizona will have booths in the fine arts and crafts market, and an interesting performance artist will grace the Troubadour Stage Sunday, September 20, at 2 p.m.
“The Troubadour Stage is the sneaky grower of the festival,” West laughed. “It’s quiet, it’s on a little side street and it’s spoken word, which is an art form that’s growing and growing. You can go there and look and there are people crowded around there. The tent is full. This year we have a great headliner named Hero, who is like an enterprise all by himself.”
His real name is Roosevelt Wright, III, and he’s a life coach, author, minister, entrepreneur, actor, poet and singer. He has four books and nine spoken-word CDs to his credit, has written, directed and starred in stage plays and, with his wife, Sandria, is the star of an online reality show called “Young & Married in New Orleans.”
Other stages promise big things as well. Karen Gordon of Garden City Jazz has organized the Jazz Stage, the Family Stage will host great children’s performances and the Community Stage will focus on local musical acts.
“We’re really excited about our Global Stage entertainment, which will include Sandy B and the Allstars, who will open up the festival Friday night, and they’re just a fun party band,” West said of the fifth stage. “We’ll have Patrick Blanchard, who’s an Augusta native. He’s coming back. He hasn’t played in Augusta in about five years. He’ll play Saturday night, and on Sunday night we have an artist who plays jazz fusion. He’s going to close out the festival and it’s an international style of jazz, so it goes right along with the diversity of the festival.”
That would be the Amos Hoffman Quartet. Hoffman is an Israeli jazz guitarist and oud player who is known worldwide for pioneering the fusing of middle-eastern rhythms and melodic themes with those of modern jazz.
Food, of course, will dominate the Augusta Common but, like the past couple of years, there will be no featured country.
“A lot of times people don’t understand why we don’t do a featured country anymore,” West said. “It used to be that if Germany was the featured country, people thought they were going to a German Festival and it’s not. We just want people to really understand that.”
And though its sheer size may force the global village (the spot with the food and the craft beer tent and the Global Stage) out onto Broad Street a bit, it’s actually the Family Area where West said the festival is experiencing the most growth.
“We travel and go to festivals to get ideas. And sometimes you have a vision for something, of where you want something to go, and we just had a great vision for the children’s area and we finally have the manpower to pull that off this year,” West said. “We’ve been moving incrementally in that direction, but this year it should really feel like a destination for kids instead of just something that’s over there in the corner with some stuff to do. That’s a big deal because kids don’t necessarily like to look at 130 booths of art.”
They do, however, like to look at and buy arts and wares that other kids have made, and they can do just that at the Young Artists Market. West admits it’s one of her favorite areas of the festival.
“I have people telling me all year long that their kids start in December to build up their inventory of paintings they sell, and we have everything from jewelry makers to painters to kids who busk with their guitars, children who draw portraits on site and sketch,” she said. “It makes me so happy to see these industrious children.”
Some want to move into the fine arts and crafts area, and even though they can’t, West says it’s a great chance for them to see what’s involved.
“They have a true understanding of what it is to get out and sell their work, to see what sells and what doesn’t, and to understand what a long weekend it is,” she said. “Any festival like this, when you are an artist you’re tied to your booth. You really can’t go out and enjoy the 25 countries of food. That really doesn’t matter to the artist. A lot of them are just there on their own and it’s hard work for them. So the kids are learning that.”
In addition to the Young Artists Market, the Family Stage is located at 7th Street and the Family Area nearby, as always, will be filled with free craft activities, as well as some that participants may have to pay a small fee for.
In addition, there will be free workshops at the Demo Zone and traveling performers like those from Lunatrix Arts, Cycle Circus and the Singing Princesses and Pirates of Augusta entertaining the crowds.
There is, no doubt, a lot going on from the time the festival opens Friday, September 18, at 5 p.m. until the time it closes its gates for good on Sunday, September 20, at 7 p.m. And that’s the great thing about Arts in the Heart, although it’s not the best.
The best thing about Arts in the Heart is that it is a budget-friendly festival, no matter what your budget is. If you happened to get your badge in advance (Thursday, September 17, is the last day they’re available at SunTrust and Vintage Ooollee, if there are any more available), you only paid $5. Still, they’re a very affordable $10 at the gate and good for the whole weekend.
And that’s really all you’re required to buy.
“Where can you go and have five stages of entertainment for $5 or $10? Or just to be exposed to international food from 25 countries?” West said. “There’s nowhere you can go and get that kind of exposure if you don’t live in a big city. And we make sure we have reasonably priced alternatives. If people think the international food is too expensive, we have hot dogs. We have free things to do in the children’s area, so even if people are on a budget they can still have fun.”
Performance schedules for each stage, menus and more are included on the festival’s website, artsintheheartofaugusta.com.