By Mike Ironside

This article originally appeared in 365ink, and the author has graciously given permission for it to be reprinted here.

We celebrate the imminent arrival of DubuqueFest, the fine arts festival that not only signals the beginning of city’s summer festival season but also happens to be the oldest continuously running festival in Dubuque.  Consider this:  How does one keep an arts festival fresh?  Especially one that’s been around for over 30 years?

That was the challenge presented to DubuqueFest’s sponsoring organization, the Dubuque County Fine Arts Society (DCFAS).  Not that the festival was not successful.  In its mission to bring free or inexpensive arts experiences to the community, DubuqueFest has always been one of Fine Arts Society’s most successful programs.  But with rising gas prices and a shifting economy, drawing exhibiting artists to the DubuqueFest Art Fair has been a challenge in recent years.

In an effort to reverse that trend and reinvigorate the Art Fair, Fine Arts Society split the role of DubuqueFest Director into two co-director positions.  Previous Director Aaron Hefel would focus on live music, entertainment, and overall festival organization, while new co-director Paula Neuhaus would take on the management and marketing of the DubuqueFest Art Fair and related arts activities.  We sat down with Paula to learn more about the refocused efforts and what we might expect from the 2011 DubuqueFest art experience.

“DubuqueFest is a gigantic undertaking with a lot of goals,” Neuhaus explained.  “So adding a secondary partner only makes sense to grow this event and focus on providing cultural opportunity for artists.  It’s always been a goal of Dubuque County Fine Arts Society, our umbrella organization, so meeting that cultural worker employment opportunity piece is really important to the organization and to the festival.  Having two people to do it – one focusing on music and festival activities and one focusing on Art Fair and arts programming – it’s a perfect arrangement.”

DubuqueFest Art FairWant to learn more about the artists? See the gallery of exhibiting artists or check out a special feature on three artists new to DubuqueFest.

The arrangement, and the effort Neuhaus has put into drawing more exhibiting artists to the Art Fair has paid off.  The show in Washington Park will have over 70 artists the weekend of May 21-22, up from less than 60 last year.  “We’ve had probably 50 percent new submissions of contemporary artists in mediums we haven’t covered in the past,” she adds.

New exhibitors will be showing handmade custom footwear, fiber-work, and other wearable art.  In addition, the Art Fair will feature blown glass, stained glass, painting, fine art photography, wood sculpture, hand-turned wooden bowls, art furniture pieces, letterpress work, handmade paper, stone work, and jewelry.  “We have everything,” Neuhaus says.

Exhibiting artists represent Dubuque and the Tri-States, as well as a wider regional area. “We have some of the best working local artists in the show, and from the region as well – Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota,” Neuhaus noted.  “I think there are a few folks from Texas, but the majority of the show is regional.”

In her new role, Neuhaus has been able to work with a committee of volunteers and a variety of community partners to expand some of the other DubuqueFest arts experiences related to the Art Fair.  “We have an incredible committee this year,” she states.  “It’s primarily comprised of working artists and art advocates.”

Chalk the Town ClockOne initiative is expanding the interactive arts activities of the kids’ art tent to include more people.  “This year, it’s hands-on for everyone,” she explained. “We’ve always had demonstrations, but this year we have two pieces that invite adults and children, everyone in the community to get their hands dirty creating art.  The Dubuque Art Center residency program, which is new to the city has partnered with us in creating a community chalk the Town Clock mural.  So there will be the opportunity on Saturday for anyone in the community to join in an illustration that is going to cover the Town Clock.”

“In Washington Park at the same time on the same day, we’re having the Maquoketa Art Experience resident artists, who have created an interactive painting kiosk, so I think that that’s really exciting,” she notes.  Gary Carstens from Mississippi Mud Studios will also be doing wheel-thrown pottery demonstrations in Washington Park during the Art Fair.

The kids’ art tent, this year known as the Children’s Art Creation Station, will also offer interactive arts experiences for the next generation of artists. “Of course the kids’ art tent is always super cool,” says Neuhaus.  “This year it’s celebrating cultural traditions in kite making.  So the committee and the kids’ art tent director has created some prototype kites from different cultures so you can make your own or you can try to adapt one from say ”¦ Japan.”

Also returning to Washington Park this year will be live music at the Gazebo, though Hefel and Neuhaus have worked to offer acoustic acts that can entertain without disrupting the Art Fair or exhibitors potential for sales.  Sales of work by exhibiting artists is not an issue to be overlooked.  No matter how much an artist might love creating work, if they can’t make a living selling it, they can’t afford to make more.

DubuqueFest has a proud history of not only providing arts experiences for festival-goers, but also opportunities in the cultural economy for artists. When someone buys art directly from an artist at the Art Fair, it’s definitely a win-win situation.  “It’s the greatest opportunity to invest in fine art and fine craft by shopping at an art fair,” observes Neuhaus.  “You’re purchasing directly from artists so you’re investing in their work and you get to meet the artist, you get to talk about the process, and you have the opportunity to order custom work.”

Toward creating opportunities for artists, the DubuqueFest Art Fair has for years tried to continually improve the quality of the exhibited work, an effort that continues this year.  “This fair doesn’t invite any manufactured work, mass-produced work,” explains Neuhaus, “these are one-of-a-kind pieces that you are taking home.  What better opportunity to have individual pieces of art in your life?  It’s how you adorn yourself, how you choose to surround yourself.”

While the best way to experience the exhibition is the Art Fair itself, DubuqueFest has a great new web site where visitors can see a preview of work by artists that will be at the show.  The web site has also been instrumental in networking with potential new exhibiting artists and useful in drawing volunteers to the festival, both individuals and as organized groups.

While Neuhaus has focused on the arts-related aspects of the event, she is still excited about the other festival features like the car show on Main Street and live music on two stages.  “Our live music on the Town Clock main stage is incredible this year,” she said.  “It’s local, it’s regional, and it’s national touring acts.  We’re covering all of it.”

DubuqueFest includes music as one art in a broader spectrum of arts to be experienced and celebrated. “That’s what really sets DubuqueFest apart is that it is an all-arts, multi-faceted fine arts festival,” notes Neuhaus.  “This is a full arts celebration offering free arts experiences to the community and that’s what the Dubuque County Fine Arts Society has always really tried to do.”

The DubuqueFest Art Fair is admission free and is scheduled for Saturday, May 21 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, May 22 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  See the schedule and other articles for more information on other arts activities.

Mike Ironside is the current board president of the Dubuque County Fine Arts Society.