Utah Arts Festival 2019: What’s the new vibe for the 43rd edition? Many new faces, events at all venues

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Utah Review begins its preview coverage today of the 43rd Utah Arts Festival, which will be held June 20-23, noon to 11 p.m. daily, on the Library Square in downtown Salt Lake City. As this is the state’s largest multidisciplinary arts and cultural gathering each year, The Utah Review considers the Utah Arts Festival a worthy arts and cultural barometer for the state, as this curtain raiser feature indicates. For more information about this year’s festival, see the Utah Arts Festival website and ticket information here.

In a rapidly growing state with its population nearing an estimated 3.25 million, Utah always has consistently punched well above its metaphorical weight class when it comes to arts participation. Four years ago, statistics from a comprehensive survey of the National Endowments for the Art (NEA) indicated that Utah leads the country in percentage of adults attending visual or performing arts events (84.5%). According to a forthcoming report from the Utah Cultural Alliance, the state’s creative industry is the third fastest growing in the country, adding 11% more jobs just last year. The cultural arts industry in Utah employs approximately 112,000 people, generating $4 billion in earnings.

Photo Credit: Trevor Hooper Photography (@trevorhooperphoto)

Likewise, when the 43rd Utah Arts Festival opens June 20 on Library Square, the event will reflect the state’s impressive showing in cultural arts. There are fresh vibes in every venue, including new coordinators for many of the festival’s programs. As a quick overview, there are 68 new visual artists in the largest Artists Marketplace ever, 46 new performers on the musical stages, 36 new performers on the WordFest (Literary Arts) Big Mouth Stage, six new DJs in the Urban Arts venue, world premiere commissions in chamber music, jazz and dance, including two by Ballet West artists. And the 17th annual Fear No Film program is new in many respects, under its new coordinator Derek Mellus, the production coordinator for the Utah Film Commission.

The rush of new faces and expressions coincides with a festival that now is beginning to encompass a third generation of people who have experienced the festival in one way or another. Joshua Perkins, who oversees 1520 Arts (formerly The B-Boy Federation) as young dancers and hip hop artists draw packed crowds regularly to the Round Stage, recalled in a previous Utah Review the days when he and his friends performed outside festival gates more than a decade, wondering if they would ever be able to showcase their talents on a festival stage. Talia Keys, one of Utah’s standout musicians who returns to perform on the Amphitheater Stage, was interviewed last year about her long connection to the festival. “I remember coming to the festival when I was three and getting my face painted as a cat,” she recalls. “I love Utah and it really has been exciting to see what has developed here.”

Photo Credit: The Utah Review

Indeed, many young artists also have matured, in part because of participating in festivals like this. Ten years ago, filmmaker Ben Garchar, an Ohio native, had just graduated from Wright State University in Dayton and drove to Salt Lake City to see first hand how audiences responded to his short film on the Fear No Film program. This year, Garchar, who now lives and works in New York, will have Neighborhood, his third short film to be screened at the festival. He was editor on the short To Be Queen, which was featured  recently on The New York Times homepage as an Op-Doc.

One example of the festival’s third generation of artists is Utah’s Thatch Elmer, 15, working in the art of cowboy poetry, a form usually dominated by individuals old enough to be his grandparents. Elmer has dazzled peers and audiences at national competitions and numerous events in and outside of Utah. Indeed, the festival’s 21st century voice is being nourished across all festival venues.


From The Netherlands, the interactive street theater group Close Act brings Saurus, highlighting stunning 18‐feet-tall dinosaur‐like creatures, as they wind their way through the crowds. Saurus has performed in other American cities including Ann Arbor, Detroit, Omaha and Breckenridge, Colorado. Their Utah premiere will include three daily shows (4, 6 and 8 p.m.) at the festival.

Thatch Elmer. Photo Credit: Ogden Standard Examiner.

The Artists Marketplace will be the largest ever with 177 artists, including 120 from outside of Utah. The application process was competitive, as 695 artists submitted their portfolios for consideration. Likewise, the 68 artists making their first-time appearance is the largest since the festival’s earliest years.

With KRCL Radio (90.9 FM), the festival has designated June 21 as Women Who Rock! Day with all of the musical stages featuring female artists, including the participants of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls. Keys is the music director for the Rock N’ Roll Camp for Girls SLC and is involved with the Women Who Rock series on KRCL-FM Radio.

The day’s celebration will be marked at other festival venues. The Arts and Technology venue will feature CodeDevs, which gives young female students opportunities to develop their technology skills. In addition, Fear No Film will offer Women Who Rock! short films, all created by female directors from Utah, other U.S. locations, France and Hungary (June 21, 8 p.m.; June 23, 4 p.m.).

Talia Keys and The Love. Photo Credit: Cat Palmer.

Mellus has set new records for the 17th annual Fear No Film, the festival’s fourth largest program and which typically captures the zeitgeist of contemporary short film expression. It is the largest slate ever at 90 short films, an impressive number compared to the shorts program at Sundance 2019 which comprised 73. The slate includes documentaries, narratives, kids’ themed films, animation and a new Midnight Shorts program comprising science fiction, satire and a touch of the avant-garde. The Best of Utah Shorts Competition features two programs: student and professional. Audience members will vote for their favorites and the final Sunday screening will feature the “best of the best,” per the outcome of voting.

For the 25th presentation of the WordFest (Literary Arts) venue, new coordinators Trish Hopkinson and Melissa Helquist have expanded the programming for the Big Mouth Stage. The always popular poetry slam competitions have been expanded to include a high school slam featuring winners of the Utah State high School Championship. The festival’s poetry slams are timed ideally for participants to prepare for the national competition, which will be held in Oakland, California in August. Last year, Salt City Unified, which performed and competed at the festival, finished in fourth place among the 72 teams participating in the nationals, held in Chicago.

Cowboy poets including the young phenom of Thatch Elmer will be featured along with workshops in the City Library’s Special Collections Room and at the Salt Lake Community College Writing Center on the Library Plaza, including the annual Wasatch IronPen Literary and Ultra Marathon. Winners of the Sor Juana Poetry contest, sponsored by Artes de México en Utah, also will perform.

Photo Credit: Artes de México en Utah.

WordFest also comes to the Kids’ Art Yard daily from 1-4 p.m., courtesy of the Rock Canyon Poets. Likewise, Christian McKay Heidicker, the author of Scary Stories for Young Foxes, will read tales from the 320-page book daily at various times in the Art Yard. The book’s official release is slated for July so young Utah audiences are getting an early sample of the various tales Heidicker has included.

The Art Yard’s theme is insects with a multitude of hands-on projects from major community organizations including Art Access, Craft Lake City, the Natural History Museum of Utah, Tracy Aviary, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Utah Museum of Fine Arts and the Summerhays Music Center, which returns with the hugely popular Instrument Petting Zoo.

For The Gallery at Library Square, on the fourth floor of the City Library, the featured festival show will be the traveling exhibition with 54 works representing the 2018 and 2019 Utah All-State High School Art Show, which champions the work of juniors and seniors which are selected by a professional jury. Comprehensive in its diverse offering of art media and representation of young artistic talent, Utah’s high school show is clearly among the largest of its kind in the U.S. The traveling exhibition represents the 46th and 47th annual versions of the all-state art show, which is coordinated by the Springville Museum of Art in conjunction with the Utah Division of Arts and Museums.

Entering the sixth year of a successful partnership with the Utah Arts Festival, the International Acoustic Music Association (IAMA)’s song academy returns along with numerous folk, acoustic, bluegrass, roots, and Americana performers. A highlight will be Christine Lavin, a songwriter who has lived in New York City for 35 years, who will lead one of the IAMA workshops with Kate MacLeod. Lavin’s 24th album is slated to be released in September. There also will be the IAMA’s Susanne Millsaps Performing Singer Songwriter Showcase on the Big Mouth Stage, featuring original songs from six former Millsaps competition finalists.

The festival also champions many of Salt Lake City’s most critically acclaimed cultural assets. Dance, the empress jewel in the local arts, gets its due merits with performances by the Repertory Dance TheatreSamba Fogo, the Children’s Dance Theatre of the Tanner Dance Program at The University of Utah and 1520 Arts. Ruuddances, LLC, which includes members of Ballet West and Ballet West Academy, will perform a program that includes two world premiere dance commissions this year by Utah dance artists Katlyn Addison and Joshua Whitehead, respectively.  

Photo Credit: Trevor Hooper Photography (@trevorhooperphoto)

The festival’s opening day will feature a performance by Stephen Beus, the 2006 Gold Medalist of the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, held in Salt Lake City. Beus was on a tear in the four months during which he won the Bachauer. Now an international artist in high demand, he took first place in the Vendome Prize International Competition (Lisbon) and he was awarded the Max I. Allen Fellowship of the American Pianists Association (Indianapolis).

Music world premieres, commissioned by the festival, encompass works by Sid Richardson, a young composer who explores the intersection of music and classical literature and who also received the 2018 Hermitage Prize from the Aspen Music Festival and School. The chamber music commission concert also will feature music by Luis Tinoco, Devin Maxwell and Neil Thornock. The jazz commission features Jay Lawrence, a veteran drummer who has worn many hats in the music industry including co-owning the Jazz Hang recording label.


Tapping into the individual donor’s psyche is a challenge that Aimée Dunsmore, assistant director and development director, and Lindsay Garrahan, development associate, have excelled at in shepherding fundraising efforts that point toward a legacy relationship potentially stretching across several generations. The membership numbers of the Friends With Benefits program, now in its tenth year, grow steadily. The program is a vital springboard for the festival’s development program, which seeks to expand the individual donor base along with its ongoing corporate sponsorship program. Some 65 percent of the organization’s annual revenue comes from the festival.

Photo Credit: The Utah Review.

One of the festival’s best fundraising events, which always sells completely, is the Big Deal Brunch, held on the closing day. This will be the sixth year for the brunch.

As noted in an earlier interview with The Utah Review, Dunsmore says they emphasize their fundraising activities with the same casual, close-knit family or community ambience that underscores the festival’s overall vibe. “We like to keep the approach pretty low key and without pressure,” she adds. Donors can start modestly at $50 annually or select one of multiple contribution levels ranging in manageable increments to $1,500 or more. Many members consider it a bargain because the rewards in return easily are three, four, or more times the donated investment, Dunsmore explains.

The sly whimsical approach also works for Friends Who Give A Crap, now in its fourth year.  For $75, a donor can sponsor a port-a-potty, and in return, will have their names featured on a unit along with a pair of festival tickets and a miniature commemorative foam potty. Last year, one donation included a marriage proposal.

Utah Arts Festival Masquerade

The festival’s annual masquerade party, held in the winter close to Mardi Gras, also has become a successful pipeline for fundraising, always a strong revenue performer.

Volunteers represent a potent festival advantage, especially in ensuring that each year’s programming always incorporates new elements in various ways. Each year, between 1,000 and 1,200 sign up to volunteer for what essentially is a miniature city of arts and culture. The average value of that volunteer effort is a critical element in grant or foundation proposals – with a calculated value of $25 per volunteer hour. Meanwhile, the cost of staging the festival per person has increased dramatically within this decade – by as much as 60 percent to somewhere between $25 and $30 per person.

This also will be the 22nd year in offering admission for free to children, 12 and under, thanks to the allocation of sales tax revenue earmarked for Salt Lake County’s Zoo, Arts and Parks (ZAP) program. Some 60 percent of festivalgoers take advantage of various ticket discounts and more than 7,000 tickets are given free to underserved and special needs populations.

Photo Credit: The Utah Review.

Admission prices are unchanged from last year. General admission will be $15. Tickets for adults 65 and older and military are $8, also the price for the lunchtime special on Thursday and Friday, from noon to 3 p.m. A four-day pass is $50, available for purchase on the first day. The valet bike lot once again will operate with the aid of the Salt Lake City Bicycle Collective, which will entitle users to receive a $2 discount on regular festival admission. 

Follow The Utah Review throughout the next two weeks for previews and for complete festival information, visit the Utah Arts Festival website.

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