Gainesville celebrated the 40th anniversary of its Downtown Festival & Art Show Sunday — this time in person — after being forced to go fully virtual last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hundreds of people attended the event, which lasted from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Police blocked off several areas around Bo Diddley Plaza that were strewn with neighboring white tents on either side of the road. Guitar players, cello players and Egyptian-style belly dancers performed, accompanying artists who exhibited paintings, pottery, sculptures, jewelry, clothing, caricatures, water fountains and wind chimes.
Attending the festival for the first time, Thomas Rye, 30, and his family members voiced their appreciation of the festival’s variety.
“It’s immersive,” Rye said. “There’s something for everyone here.”
Sunshine Artist, a publication that evaluates arts and crafts festivals, considers Gainesville’s festival to be one of the best of its kind, consistently ranking it among the top 200 arts and crafts festivals nationwide.
Sunshine Andrei, who has coordinated the festival for the past seven years, said the festival typically boasts 240 artists, who are selected by a panel of several local artists and some more established artists who serve as judges to pick the best exhibits.
Due to COVID-19 constraints, the festival had room for only 160 artists this year. The festival was supposed to last two days, but the Saturday art exhibits were canceled because of rain.
“If we weren't dealing with COVID, we probably would have had more time to do something a little more grand for the 40th,” Andrei said.
Still, she was excited the festival was able to be held in person this year because virtual events hindered the community aspect of the event.
“Being able to get out on the streets again and see people enjoying themselves — you don’t get to see that when you’re doing a virtual event,” she said. “You miss that connectivity.”
Andrei said it’s not the same festival it was 40 years ago. Only a dozen local artists used to gather for the event, she said. Now, it hosts a wide variety of artists from as far south as Miami and as far north as Virginia.
Artists like Julia Dressler, a painter, drove multiple hours to Gainesville for the festival.
Dressler, a 58-year-old artist from Virginia who has done art shows for about 35 years, has made the nearly nine-hour overnight drive to the festival for the past four years to showcase and sell her paintings of Volkswagen vans.
“I love old pickup trucks, and the Volkswagens kind of fit in with it. It's kind of a cultural thing,” she said. “A lot of people love them, and it's kind of fun for me to do."
Other attendees, like Susan Ori, 65, and Richard McCauley, 71, also said the festival’s location, the downtown backdrop, was an enticing aspect of the event.
However, last year’s virtual festival was not as effective at attracting customers, said Leslie Peebles, who has 20 years of experience selling her art at festivals.
“I tried to do virtual Gasparilla. I tried to do virtual Downtown Festival [& Art Show]. Couple of others,” Peebles said. “They were terrible. I didn’t sell a single thing at any virtual festival.”
As a line of customers began to crowd her, Peebles said these were festivals where, in person, she would often make up to $10,000. Sometimes she made more.
Michael Bryant, another artist at the festival, said he also struggled with his art during the COVID-19 pandemic, not financially but creatively.
Though he physically could work, the uncertainty of the pandemic made him feel unsafe and uncomfortable, he said. Now, he regrets not spending the time to make his art, but at the time, he couldn’t focus on it.
“I can’t create when I think the world’s ending,” he said. “I had a year and a half at home where I could’ve made a brand new body of work … and I couldn’t do that just because — I didn’t realize it at the time — because I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t feel secure. I felt unsettled … Mentally, I just couldn’t do it.”
He said this struggle to be creative during the pandemic was common among artists he knew.
And it goes beyond just artists. Festival attendee Frankie Jimenez, 32, said it was refreshing to once again come together as a community.
“Everyone has been shut away for so long and afraid of being out and about together,” Jimenez said. “I think a big community event like this reminds everyone how great it is to be in a community. Gainesville’s a great place for that.”
Zachary Carnell is a contributing writer for the Alligator.