Creative thinking
Autumn Arts Festival returns as DAC navigates new normal

Creative thinking
Missy Votel - 09/17/2020

Locals yearning for a small taste of the “old normal” – take heart. The Durango Autumn Arts Festival, one of the classic downtown events that bookends the summer season, will be back for its 26th year this weekend. And, other than the requisite social distancing, hand-sanitizing stations and masks, it will look a lot like festivals of before times.

“The event will look pretty much the same this year,” Durango Arts Center Executive Director Brenda Macon said. As in years past, the festival will fill the streets outside the DAC, which hosts the event, filling three city bocks of E. 2nd Avenue, from College to Ninth Street. The event will feature about 80 artists, with more local artists than in years past. Volunteers will make sure attendees are limited to 85 per block to ensure a droplet-free shopping experience. Artist booths will be spaced 6-feet apart, with some taking up two tent spaces instead of one. 

Macon said the DAC made the call to go ahead with the annual outdoor festival – the center’s largest fundraiser of the year – last spring. The decision was based on evidence that outdoor activities are safer than indoor ones when it comes to transmitting the coronavirus.

“We weren’t sure if we were crazy or not, but there seems to be a lot of good energy around it,” she said, adding that they’ve been encouraged with the opening of the Farmers Market and Flea Market as well as the popularity of the downtown bump-outs. “It feels really good being validated that we made the right choice.” 

The festival features juried (i.e. invited) artists only, and will offer a wide array of quality art, textiles, photography, jewelry and more, she said (think early holiday shopping). And, as in years past, the weather promises to be stellar. “We always get the best weather,” said Macon. “It brings a tremendous amount of energy to downtown, all in the love of art. It’s a wonderful way of celebrating who we are at this very pretty time of year.”

Macon said an economic impact study a few years ago found that the arts festival pumped about $500,000 into the downtown economy over its two days. “That’s a really big deal,” she said. “Other than supporting the artists, it’s also great for restaurants and other downtown retailers.”

As per COVID guidelines, there will be no live music or food court at this year’s festival. However, in between all the art ogling, Macon encourages attendees to patronize local eateries for a bite (including the festival’s numerous restaurant sponsors too numerous to list here, hint hint.) 

And speaking of sponsors, the Arts Center could always use a few more – especially in the COVID era when nonprofits such as itself have been hit particularly hard. With the exception of the DAC’s small store Create Arts & Tea, which is open for limited hours, the gallery and theatre have been shuttered, taking away a good chunk of the center’s revenue.  

“It’s been a very frightening time as a nonprofit,” said Macon. “As a privately funded 501(c)3, there’s no guarantee of funding every year.”

Macon said for as little as $60/year, an individual can become a member, getting perks such as discounts on classes and events. But the biggest perk, of course, is supporting the arts.

“If everyone became a member, we would ensure there is a home for visual and performing arts in Durango for generations to come,” she said. “It’s a small price to pay.”

She said the DAC is not taking the pandemic lying down, with staff and the board working hard to find ways to offer services. “We’ve been talking a lot about how we can stay relevant in the community,” she said.

One of those ways was to stage the current Phoenix art exhibit, which Macon refers to as “the experiment in the windows.” 

“When the gallery closed, we knew we needed to keep supporting our local artists,” she said.

The answer was a show, with a low-cost entry fee, asking local artists to muse on the topic of coping with life in COVID. The selected entries were hung in the gallery’s windows for passersby to see. Contact info for the artist was also included so prospective buyers could contact the artists directly – the DAC will not be taking a cut. “We really wanted to let artists have a place to showcase and sell their art in a touchless experience,” said Macon. She added that she had just purchased a piece that day (most pieces are under $100) and had a chance to speak to the artist directly, something not always possible with traditional gallery shows. “It’s a brand-new experiment, but we’re getting good feedback.”

A different artist is featured every day on the DAC’s Facebook page and the exhibit will be up through Sept. 25. 

She said the center has also gone online with its art classes and soon will be offering classes for students on the local cable access Channel 15. Kids theatre classes have also resumed, albeit capped at 10 with social distancing measures. She also said the popular Winter Solstice Artisans Market is looking more and more like a reality. 

“We are feeling that we may be able to do that, it just takes a leap of faith to get the doors open,” she said.

As for the big question of when live theatre will return to the Diane Panelli Stage, Macon said the DAC is currently weighing its options. The center is sending out a survey this week asking patrons their feelings on returning for performances or films, such as Silent Film Sundays or the Rocky Horror Show. Seating in the theatre, which holds 200, would be downsized to 40 to keep social distancing.

“Before we announce anything, we are trying to get a bead on whether or not people would come out,” she said.

Despite the turbulent times, Macon said she has no doubt the arts, and artists, will survive. “I think people who are creative are the most resilient people on planet Earth. They know when you change the way you look at something, the thing you look at changes,” she said. “That’s the power of creativity. We’re going to get through this … it’ll just take a little time.” n