Festival in the Park turns 50

In 2014, there are practically as many community arts festivals as there are communities. But in 1964, when future mayor John Belk suggested such an arts festival to his colleague A. Grant Whitney, community festivals in small cities like Charlotte weren’t common.

“The big challenge was having a lit outdoor location that could support a festival in the evening,” says Festival in the Park board member Frank Whitney, a federal judge who is the son of Grant Whitney. “The festivals that did exist did not have night lighting to illuminate the art.”

At the time, the modest festival boasted only 10 tents, an arts exhibit and a handful of live performances. But in the decades since, Festival in the Park has become one of Charlotte’s annual signature events. It will mark 50 years this weekend with five stages, 100 tents, 80 display panels for art, children’s arts and amusement activities, and other family-friendly aspects (this year, it’s camel rides).

In creating the event, Grant Whitney was inspired by Tivoli Gardens – the then-100-plus-year-old amusement park in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Frank Whitney was only 4 when the inaugural festival was held, and remembers toppling into the water while feeding a duck. From youth to young adulthood, his resume with the festival included performing with the Carolina Clowns, doing magic tricks, and participating in Revolutionary War re-enactments.

Grant Whitney recruited whomever he could to perform and set up booths, Frank Whitney says: “Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and religious organizations and what artists he could find.” One year, Hari Krishnas passed out flowers and burned incense, and Boy Scouts erected a rope bridge across the lake that sent many more children into the water.

In the early years, artists couldn’t sell their art (although they could take orders).

“At the time there was some disdain for selling anything at public park other than traditional food vendors,” Whitney says. “(And) my father didn’t want people to feel pressure to buy something. It took off the commercial edge.”

But “as festivals became abundant all over the country, artists became traveling professionals,” he says. “It became impossible to not let artists, especially traveling artists, sell their work.”

The festival was so successful, Whitney says, that the National Endowment for the Arts studied it as a model for community festivals in the 1970s.

Today, it remains a marquee event for Charlotte, and every year offers new twists. New for 2014: the aforementioned camel rides in the Family Fun Zone; a karaoke stage; the NBC Sunday Night Football bus, which will display the Vince Lombardi trophy and other exhibits during its stop there Saturday; and a Saturday concert by Carolina-reared musician Don Dixon featuring Mitch Easter and Rob Ladd.

This was Grant Whitney’s initial vision – a festival that offers something for everyone – and Frank Whitney thinks his father would be pleased how it’s continued to grow over the 15 years since his death.

“It still has his focus of something for everybody,” Frank Whitney says. “There’s a big emphasis on family. Grandparents can bring grandchildren. They can play with clowns while grandparents are looking at fine art. He liked that family aspect and the wholesomeness of the festival. He would be so happy it’s been around for 50 years.”

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