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Sharing the Spotlight 

The Urban Arts Festival continues expanding its definition of "art."

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ISAAC HALE
  • Isaac Hale

More than a decade into the history of the Urban Arts Festival, Utah Arts Alliance director Derek Dyer has gotten used to the festival being something that's constantly requiring thinking about what form it will take next. In fact, that on-the-fly approach has been built in since the very first year.

That's because the first Urban Arts Festival in 2011 was launched as something that wasn't even really planned as a festival. "The first year," Dyer says, it was just supposed to be a skate deck art show that kind of got out of control. We started to think, 'maybe we can have a couple of vendors outside, maybe build a little halfpipe for the skaters, maybe have some bands play.' And suddenly that turned into, 'let's have an urban arts festival.'"

Over the subsequent 10 years, the Urban Arts Festival has continued to grow and evolve, always with the idea of carving out a unique place for the event in the landscape of other Utah arts and cultural festivals. It's not just any festival, for example, that would choose to add basketball to the lineup, or introduce lowrider car culture to a wider audience.

"We keep our ear to the ground," Dyer says. "We're part of our community, and we want to be aware of these different cultural communities that are maybe underrepresented. ... For instance, we think of street ball as an urban art form; there's an art to basketball, we believe. Then we decided to focus on the lowrider car community, which has a rich, storied history going back to L.A. and New Mexico. Sometimes [a car] will be passed down through a family; sometimes multiple artists will work on a car. So we bring it downtown, put it on a pedestal and put a spotlight on this culture, even though it's not what people would typically think of as an 'art work.'"

Even when it comes to the music component—with its focus on hip-hop—Dyer believes that the Urban Arts Festival finds its mission in exploring creators or components that may not get as much attention. The choice of Terrell "Carnage the Executioner" Woods as the 2022 music headliner is allowing for a focus on his area of expertise in beatboxing. "Hopefully, we're educating people and letting them have a better understanding of this particular subset of the art form," Dyer says

Poking around in those less-explored corners, and expanding the definition of "art," has become a big part of what the Urban Arts Festival is about. That doesn't mean, however, that Dyer emphasizes only bringing in ideas or artists that have a certain "exclusivity."

"I don't necessarily say, for example, 'I don't think Utah Arts Festival would book this person,' he says. "What I kind of said is, 'This is the Urban Arts Festival. We love street-style art, we love pop culture, things that are addressing social justice or change, experimental works. We love emerging artists. We love being maybe the first festival you'll see their art at.' If you want to get the first peek at who you're going to see all over in a couple of years, come here."

Just as important to Dyer as carving out this distinct identity, however, is remaining an event that's accessible to everyone—which means remaining free to the public. That's not always easy, particularly at a time when the sources of revenue that have typically helped support the festival are a bit harder to come by. "It's always challenging figuring out how to pay for it," he says. "Sponsors and donors have shifted their funding [over the past two years] to health care or human-services giving. I always hear from people that it's their favorite event, and it could be much bigger, but we continue to have to navigate the pros and cons of having it remain free, an event of this size."

Even the location of the event has been a challenge of late, as the Urban Arts Festival moved to The Gateway last year from its long-time home at the Gallivan Center. "We haven't really found a perfect venue," Dyer says. "The Gateway is awesome, but as it fills up, we're losing some of the indoor spaces we like to use. Finding the perfect home would be one of our big goals."

And in tumultuous times, there's still a goal of highlighting creative communities that may not be as familiar to a lot of Utahns, in a way that is celebratory, even as those communities face their own unique challenges. "Just given the demographic of the artists, a lot of them come from diverse communities," Dyer says. "They have experienced a lot of the injustices and issues that have been amplified over the last couple years. ... True hip-hop is really rooted in activism and speaking truth to power, and that's kind of where we're coming from. We're trying to change the world for the better, but I think you can do that in a joyful way."

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