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Utah Arts Festival 2024 preview

Emerging from survival mode, UAF offers something for everyone


  • Courtesy Photo

For a few years in the aftermath of the COVID year of 2020, the Utah Arts Festival was in a period of transition. Aimee Dunsmore was replacing longtime festival director Lisa Sewell; the traditional four-day festival was shortened to three days. So is the UAF now at a point where they've found enough stability to simply say "we know what we're doing now, and how we're doing it, so let's just make it the best we can?"

"I feel like we're close," Dunsmore says. "I feel probably the best so far [since 2020] coming into it. Sponsorships haven't come back the way they were—we're still adjusting—but I wouldn't say that's a negative. We're just trying to use every dollar the best possible way we can. I think it's still going to take a little bit of time to get back."

There are indications, however, of an event closer than ever to the pre-COVID version of itself. One such signifier is the return to the festival grounds of street performances, including stilt-walkers and aerialists, which had been absent for a few years while the festival focused on core concerns. Additionally, the festival has been able to bring in an international performing artist in Korean performer Seo Jungmin, who plays the 25-string Gayageum

Asked if it's fair to say this programming choice represents an organization that's emerging from mere "survival mode," Dunsmore says, "That is accurate. We can't do exactly what we've done before, or at the scale we've done before, but with the feedback we got, it was important to get back to that. ... We're slowly but surely trying to bring all those things back."

Feedback from attendees has always been important in terms of making the right decisions for the festival programming, and that includes the live performances. Yet there's still a challenge with how to respond to feedback that could point you in two different directions, including whether to keep the same performing groups from year to year or change things up. According to Performing Arts Coordinator Dayna McKee, "There are people who want to see the same thing every year, their favorite, and then those who say, 'it's always the same thing, why should I spend my money again.'"

Finding that balance is one of the challenges of programming the festival, but Dunsmore and McKee both believe that mixing things up and providing opportunities for different artists is a key component of UAF's mission. The application process—which this year found around 300 applicants for around 65 performing arts spots—includes ratings from a volunteer jury as well as a process for assessing the diversity of the program along a variety of criteria.

"The jury process is so important, but representation is also important," Dunsmore says. "If the same people get in every year, it can stop people from applying. ... We instituted that, after three years [of a group performing at the festival], we reserve the right to rest an artist in any program. You're definitely going to see people you know and love, but you're also going to see new people—and that's part of our mission, and what we're here to provide."

Feedback was also part of the decision to move to a three-day festival—in this case, feedback from participating artists, who in some cases were more inclined to attend a three-day festival—but that was only part of the package. Dunsmore notes that Thursday attendance had been declining in the years before the change was made, and there were rising production costs to consider. But also, there was the matter of considering how best to manage the resources—and the well-being—of the festival staff.

"Many of our crew have been here for years and years, so the burnout potential is real," Dunsmore says. "I think three days is healthier for all of us. It's still a full festival and there's still a lot to see and do. It's a bit more responsible with our time and resources."

And in the big-picture analysis, maintaining the health and long-term viability of the festival is paramount. The artist marketplace remains healthy, with Dunsmore indicating that sales have remained fairly consistent—a little under $2 million annually—even with one less day. The programming still includes a wide range of offerings, from urban arts to the Fear No Film Festival to hands-on workshops. For many attendees, the idea that there was ever anything for the Utah Arts Festival to get back to might not even have crossed their minds.

"When the marketing team came to us with 'The Great Utah Get-Together' [as a slogan], that really resonated," Dunsmore says. "It's a real challenge to market, because every program we have could stand on its own. The artist marketplace and performing arts are our two biggest [draws], but there's also all this other stuff, and maybe that's the thing you go for next year. There really, truly is something for everyone."