Putting It Together | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Putting It Together 

Staging the Utah Arts Festivals tests organizational creativity.

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Over the course of its 41 years, the Utah Arts Festival has shifted locations, added programs and swelled annual attendance. One thing, however, has remained consistent: Every year is a new test of its organizers' creativity in putting it all together.

After 2016's big 40th anniversary—which included a unique, Legislature-funded free-admission day on the opening day—you could forgive UAF director Lisa Sewell if she wanted to take a year where everything stayed the same. But she and her staff are constantly tweaking the program, whether that means adjusting the placement of artist booths to allow for a few more spaces, or adding a Digital Art Lab with interactive workshops run by SpyHop.

Still, there's always the logistical Jenga game of fielding applications from hundreds of artists, musicians, filmmakers and others in a way that will result in a festival covering a broadly appealing range of genres and subjects. Program administrator Amanda Neff notes that the artist marketplace represents an all-time high of 174 participating artists, culled from 615 applicants. That task involves several variables: including returning award-winners; giving preference to Utah-based artists; making sure that a cross-section of styles and media are part of the program. This is all before the complex process of determining where each individual artist's booth will be placed.

"Even if there's an artist who comes back, they'll want to be placed in the exact same location, because [they think] everyone remembers exactly where they were," Neff says. "'No, we're going to put you over here this year,' and they're all up in arms. But it gives it a freshness, just putting them in a different location."

A similar challenge faces performing-arts coordinator Steve Floor, who wrangles not only scheduling local groups like Ririe-Woodbury Dance Co. and Samba Fogo, but finding music headliners ranging from the Mississippi blues of Dexter Allen and Jarekus Singleton to the electronic dance music of RJD2. That process includes Floor consulting with 26 people across five committees, representing individual musical subcategories like rock, folk/bluegrass and classical. "I don't know all this stuff," Floor says, "so I rely on other people. I'll be looking at some singer-songwriters, and I'll wake up, then [the committee is] like, 'Oh, this guy is the best singer-songwriter you've ever heard.' Oh, OK. Then I look into him to find out why, and take it from there."

The process isn't even as simple as determining the best artists and inviting them; it's crucial to Floor that the acts be well-suited to the unique conditions of performing outdoors. He mentions the example of a local musician who performs Persian-influenced music in Farsi, and who brings in a backing band of Los Angeles musicians, which would involve travel expenses. "I've seen her perform, and it's pretty stunning stuff," Floor says. "But in terms of volume level? The sound coming off that stage is quieter than I'm speaking right now. So I've been honest with her: I haven't got a good place for you. I could put you on the Park Stage in the middle of the afternoon—that's the only time when it's going to be quiet enough for you guys to do what you do—but it's not worth it because the other part of the puzzle is budgetary constraints."

Finances aren't so much an issue for Topher Horman, coordinator for the Fear No Film short-film festival. Instead, he creates a unique challenge for himself by identifying an overall theme for the year—"Memory" for 2017—and programming blocks of shorts representing subcategories within that theme. "I'll maybe jot down a thought in October, if I'm lucky," Horman says of coming up with each year's theme. "Let's see if I can find a way that all these films can be programmed in. Other years, I see what these filmmakers are saying, and how they're saying it, and it'll hit me in the middle of the night: Oh that's it!"

If a film works within his theme, Horman might select it, even if on some level he realizes it would never have a festival life anywhere else—and he takes time to explain his choices in introductions to the audience. "Film 3 is absolutely raw, not a cinematic masterpiece by any stretch, but here's exactly why I fell in love with it and put it here," he says of a hypothetical intro. "So, please forgive that you can barely hear the audio, or it was literally made by 12- or 13-year-old kids in some cases, but see it within the larger theme."

That idea becomes part of the organizing principle for winnowing 500 submitted films down to between 60-70 accepted shorts, but he's also considering the unique audience he's serving. "I've got a 300-seat theater, and I've got a Utah Arts Festival audience," Horman says. "Some absolutely crave inspiration through this year's artists, and some are there with two beers in them, having a blast, listening to music."

Now that the pieces are in place for 2017, it's time to let visitors enjoy them—and be ready for a brand new set of unique factors for next year. Discussions are underway regarding possible layout changes to the Library Square campus, which theoretically could involve new construction or reducing in the amount of green space. "There are some things coming down the pike which could significantly impact festivals using the space," Sewell says. If that's the case, it will help to have a staff with so much experience looking at all the pieces they have available, and knowing how to turn that puzzle into a work of art.

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