After years of studying theater, puppeteering and coordinating renaissance fairs, David Ballard eagerly searched for a job in Gainesville.
“Find jobs in the arts in your town,” read the popup ad on Ballard’s computer in 2007.
After quickly typing in his zipcode, one job popped up: Gainesville events coordinator. It was the last day to apply. Believing the job could be fun, he submitted the application. But as months passed by he forgot about the position.
Until he received the call.
The 69-year-old spent his life following his love for the arts, and after 14 years of bringing this passion to Gainesville, Ballard is retiring.
For most of the past two months, Ballard was on leave. After the city requested he return to in-person holiday events and work, he decided the risk of catching COVID posed too high of a threat.
“I was able to work from home for some time and got permission from the employee health services but they decided that we want everybody to come back,” Ballard said. “I weighed the risk of that and said 'you know, I can retire.'”
Ballard announced his retirement at the city’s annual New Year’s concert Friday. As the countdown to midnight began, a photo of Ballard flashed on the livestream. The city’s coordination staff captioned the portrait “Happy Retirement David!”
“It seemed like the right time to do it. I kind of liked that the countdown to midnight was actually the countdown to my retirement as well,” he said.
Over the course of his 14-year career, Ballard strengthened multiple Gainesville programs and community events. He directed theater performances for young audiences and created signature events such as the performing arts festival Jest Fest.
“Bringing laughter and joy to people is what it's all about,” Ballard said.
Ballard recruited talent from all over the world for Jest Fest, including The Flying Wallendas and Parisian professional entertainer Arsene Dupin. This high level of talent was available to Gainesville for free.
Dupin, 64-years-old, recalled how intricately organized the event had been. To this day, many performers in the field still wish Jest Fest was around after it was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic as well as a tax grant from the Alachua County no longer being available.
“To be quite honest, I don’t think I’ve seen any festivals better than Jest Fest,” he said.
Ballard’s projects wouldn’t have become a reality without the help of Suzanna Mars, city production coordinator, photographer and social media manager. Together they were an event-producing team.
Mars said Ballard was able to attract acts of that caliber because they could feel his enthusiasm and his love of arts and performers.
“We knew what it takes to put on a successful show,” Mars said.
One of Ballard’s first projects was the Free Fridays concert series — a rebranded version of the previous series called Let’s Go Downtown. By publicizing and promoting the event extensively since 2007, Ballard increased attendance from 30 people to thousands.
Together Ballard and Mars transferred the concert series online to continue music events through the COVID-19 pandemic. After teaching themselves how to live stream on social media, they resumed the concerts on the Free Fridays Facebook page.
Prior to the pandemic, the concert series hit its peak at 20,000 in-person attendees per year but as the pandemic threatened safety, the concert series took a pause and went online.
“He'd [Ballard] always sign off and he'd say ‘We'll see you next spring for more Free Fridays fun.’ We didn't know that we wouldn't see them next spring,” Mars said.
Due to Ballard and Mars’ broadcasting efforts, the event grew and Free Fridays saw 2,000 in-person attendees and more than 200,000 online viewers worldwide. Altogether, Ballard was able to put on more than 300 of these shows over 14 years.
Bo Diddley Plaza Program Coordinator Nigel Hamm and Bo Diddley Plaza Ambassador Jonathan Gaunt were in charge of Ballard’s responsibilities while he was on leave and will continue to run Free Fridays.
“For the first year, there won't be too many changes. We might add more than one band per show and also have some outside agencies curate some events,” Hamm said.
While Ballard is retiring from the position, his work in the arts will continue.
He’s excited to return to what he studied in college and what first attracted him to the theater and performance field: playwriting.
“I've already been writing again so now I'll be able to write full time,” he said.
His colleagues look forward to the creative work he will dedicate time to during his retirement.
“It's at a time of his life where he's full of creative possibilities that he'd like to expand,” Mars said.
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