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Gavin's Underground

Utah Arts Festival: Lisa Sewell

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2008-06-25 -

It’s late June in downtown SLC, and that can only mean one thing. It’s going to hit 100 degrees this weekend, and the Utah Arts Festival makes its return from Thursday to Sunday. With 30 years worth of showcasing arts and culture from around the state and beyond, they’ve become one of the longest running festivals in the state that constantly brings in large crowds every year. I’d gush more, but 2News is a festival sponsor, and there’s a fine line between genuine interest and shameless promotion. Did I mention you should go to the festival this weekend? No?! You should go to the festival this weekend. I got a chance to talk with the camera-shy Executive Director Lisa Sewell about the festival and a number of other topics that came to mind while she waited for Christmas to come in her messy office.

Lisa Sewell

http://www.uaf.org/

Gavin: Hey Lisa. First, tell us a little about yourself.

Lisa: Born and raised in Salt Lake. 47 years old. Graduated from Cottonwood High, BA in Political Science, Communications from Linfield College in Oregon. Single. Own a home in the Avenues. In my free time I enjoy knitting, gardening, trail running, swimming, biking, running and skiing. Sounds like a personal ad!

Gavin: How long have you been Director of the festival, and what do you for the Festival?

Lisa: This year’s Festival will be my second as the director. I started working for the Festival in Sept of ’95 as the marketing and development director, moved up to the Assistant Director/Director of Operations in 2001 and the Executive Director in 2007

Gavin: The Festival has been around since the late 70's and is one of the longest running in the state, outside of the fairs of course. What do you think has kept it going over the years?

Lisa: The community support. I think Utah as a state is very unique in its commitment to the arts and community gatherings in general.

Gavin: How would compare the current festival to that of five years ago, or even ten years ago?

Lisa: More depth in terms of programs that make up the event. In the past we touted all the programs of the Festival – visual, performing, culinary, literary, art yard for kids. Because we have so much going on at the Festival, I think it’s important to add the depth to each program area to ensure that it can hold its own ground within the mix of all the other programs that are happening without getting lost.

Gavin: A lot of people don't really know that the festival doesn't just cover what some would call the "Visual" arts, but also Literary, Performing, Music and Film. Was it a slow process to include all those different genres of art over the years, or was it of little question that they needed to be added?

Lisa: It’s taken us time to add these other elements. I think the answer to the last question goes with this one – we’ve had a literary program – called Festi-Live since the 90’s at Triad; however, I think it lacked the attention and depth to make it stand out on its own enough to gain the attention of an audience. Now it does. Similarly with the film program – that has developed over our time at Library Square because we now have an amazing in-door auditorium to house it. It too has finally got some strong legs beneath it to stand on its own programmatically and we’ve seen larger and larger audiences at its screenings.

Gavin: Has the inclusion of Library Square into the mix helped the festival or made it a little too big? Or do you wish it were bigger?

Lisa: Helped immensely. It’s such a beautiful location and being right in the middle of downtown and on a TRAX line has been huge for us. I think the space is just the right size. I recall the last couple of years at Triad when we were definitely “pushing the seams” and the one year we were at Gallivan Center we had to close the gates until some people left! Library Square has just the right amount of room and we can continue to grow our audience without being too crowded.

Gavin: So do you just showcase artists, or do you allow galleries to bring in random work as well. And why or why not?

Lisa: Our visual arts program is a juried show open to individual artists. We receive more than 600 applicants from artists from across Utah and the states, some foreign countries as well. We also don’t take a percentage of their sales.

Gavin: What brought about the decision to include the Culinary Arts as part of the Festival, and how well has that gone over the years?

Lisa: We’ve always had the culinary arts as part of the Festival and have featured exotic foods like alligator and deep fried pickles – back when those items were considered “exotic.” This year we’ve added BBQ and a Tapas and wine booth. I’m excited about the Tapas – sometimes people want a glass of wine and something to nibble on before they get dinner and I think having Sully create a variety of tapas to be paired with wines is going to be a fun experience for our patrons.

Gavin: What kind of response do you get from the Art Attack 5K?

Lisa: Great response. This will be the 15th year for the race. It started out as a costumed-inspired event and the first few years folks did dress up in “artsy” clothes. We’re not San Fran – we just couldn’t get it to “take” here in SLC. Maybe because our runners take their races a bit more seriously? It’s meant to be a fun run and we work hard to get gift certificates and prizes that foster attendance to other arts events in the community. As a runner myself, last year was the first year I actually got to participate in it. It was fun, but hard on minimal amounts of sleep and food! It’s on my b-day this year and I’m planning on signing up again. I really like the 1K we have for kids. It’s so cool to see everyone lined up as these kids run out .5K and then come back through the finish line and everyone is just cheering and cheering for them.

Gavin: How significant has the addition of the Mayor's Artist Awards been to the festival over the years?

Lisa: We’ve had the MAA since 1992 and have recognized more than 60 individuals and organizations for their contributions to the arts in our community. Individuals/organizations are nominated by their peers in the community and a committee made up of the previous year’s winners and representative from our board, the mayor’s office and the SLC Arts Council select the recipients.

Gavin: A little on the music selection, there's definitely a mix of material every year, but some would say the festival tends to avoid material that falls under hip-hop and rap. Do you wish there were more of a selection with that type of genre, or is that done on purpose because of fear of content?

Lisa: Actually, we had hip hop last year and will have it again this year. I was a little nervous about it – talk about stereotyping – but, it was truly amazing to see these kids come out and put on a show with dancing and DJ-ing people sat at The Round for an hour before the show to get a good seat. By the time I got over there I had to work my way up to the sound booth to get a peek and see how they were doing. I was blown away. Not only were they amazing performers, but they were so endearing with the crowd, bringing kids and adults down to show them some “moves.” It really was very cool to look out in the audience and see how giving them a taste of a different genre of art by these amazing kids who were so professional and charismatic really broke down some barriers and stereotypes.

Gavin: With all the art that's made on a yearly basis, have there ever been any attempts to make a documentary or a DVD of all the events, or is that viewed as too much of a task to undertake?

Lisa: We have a gazillion slides and images from the past 32 years and we’re thinking for the 35th anniversary, we might try to get all the previous images digitized for archival purposes. As far as a documentary, no one’s ever approached us for something like that. You mean, like Woodstock? That would be my ultimate dream come true!

Gavin: What do you think of Gallery Stroll and how it's evolved over the years?

Lisa: We’re members of Gallery Stroll. Our move from Pierpont to Artspace City Center has provided room for us to have a gallery ourselves and participate in the monthly strolls. Again, I think it’s another sign of how much this community is supportive of the arts. Attendance is only getting larger and larger for the strolls. I read in the paper today that Utah ranks 2nd in the nation for artists residing in the state. The Festival’s gallery is but one more place where the community can see new and emerging Utah artists work.

Gavin: What is your opinion of the local Art scene, both good and bad? And is there anything you believe could be done to make it bigger or better?

Lisa: I think the artist communities that are popping up along the west side and have gathering, concerts, art shows is a great testament to the strength of artists in our community. They’re not just waiting around for someone to come and do it for them, they’re creating and fostering community and setting the stage for others to come and see what they’re up to. I’m really impressed with what Shawn Rossiter is doing with the artists in the community as well.

Gavin: Same questions, this time on the local Music scene.

Lisa: It was amazing to see the caliber of local artist who applied for this year’s Festival. We’ve been playing a lot of their music in the office the past few months and I’d go into Pat’s office and say, “who’s this?” thinking it was some national artist and he’d say, Cavedoll. Very, very good. I’m really excited to see these bands performing at the Festival this year and I hope they feel we give them a good experience.

Gavin: Yet again, same questions, but on the local Film community.

Lisa: Well, of course, with Sundance, we do have great film in Utah. I love the support we see for local, independent filmmakers in Utah. The schools are producing some amazing students in film, the Salt Lake Film Society, The Tower & Broadway Theaters. I’m glad we have these pockets of support of filmgoers to see independent film.

Gavin: And one last time, same questions on the Literary front.

Lisa: Just like the visual artists, I think the literary artists in Utah have rallied and created community and pushed themselves into the forefront for people to experience. Poetry slams at coffee shops, readings, etc. The SLCC Community Writing Center has really done a lot to foster writing and storytelling in our community. We have a great alliance with them.

Gavin: Are there any forms of art not included in the festival that you wish they did?

Lisa: Not really. I think the Utah Arts Festival has a full compliment of representing the arts.

Gavin: Anything you'd like to add about this year's festival?

Lisa: MASS Ensemble! Don’t miss this. Every so often we have an opportunity to feature a special project. A couple of years ago we brought in Project Bandaloop – they danced on the glass face of the Library. These opportunities don’t happen every year – a. they’re expensive; b. they’re often not available. So, when we get to do something like this, it’s very, very cool. MASS (music, movement and sonic sculptures) will use 3,000 feet of brass musical wire and the Library wall as the anchor to install the world’s largest stringed instruments. Two Earth Harps will be installed next Tuesday, and Wednesday. Using the curved wall of the Library, one will span east and attach to the Amphitheater Stage and the other will span west to a harp situated in the Round (the cement amphitheater on the Library plaza). This smaller harp will be played nightly – we’re trying to encourage musicians to come down and “jam” with Bill Close, the artistic director of MASS who will be performing nightly on this harp at The Round from 8- 8:45 pm. The Earth Harp attached to the Amphitheater Stage will serve as an installation piece until Sunday night when the entire company of MASS will perform from 9:30-11:00 pm. Bill will play the Earth Harp and the audience will be sitting directly underneath the strings as its being played. Musicians on the stage will accompany Bill on other giant, invented instruments. Don’t miss this one! Oh, and on Sunday, from 9:30-11:00 a.m., they’re conducting a Yoga Workshop. Bill will play the Earth Harp and Andrea Brook, will run a yoga class. Its $10 and people can just come to the Amphitheater Stage on Sunday with their mats and take the class.

Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to plug?

Lisa: Yeah, my birthday is Saturday of the Festival!

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