Arts Festival a creative collaboration of town and gown for 51 years

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In the summer of 1967, Penn State's College of Arts and Architecture and the State College Chamber of Commerce sponsored an arts event with the idea that it would encompass all of the arts in a true town-gown collaboration.

A cooperative community venture held partly on campus and partly downtown, activities would include local musical and theatrical performances, a film festival, artists in action, and a sidewalk sale and exhibition of artistic works displayed on a snow fence along the stone wall that runs parallel to College Ave.

The festival opened July 22 with Pennsylvania Gov. Raymond P. Shafer landing in a helicopter on the Old Main lawn. According to that year's fall issue of the "Penn State Alumni News," in an article by 1955 alumna Donna Clemson, the governor was "pleased and impressed" and declared the programs in theatre, music, art and film "excellent" to University President Eric Walker. The event transformed town and gown into a "giant museum-theatre-concert hall" for nine straight days. Then — as now — artists and visitors were "undaunted by capricious weather," taking cover only to "reappear when showers ended."

First Arts Festival in 1967 canopy

Artists of all kinds -- music, theatre, dance, puppetry and more -- performed under a colorful parachute canopy that "transformed Allen Street into a gala festival plaza." The first fest featured local favorites such as rock-and-rollers "Robin and the Hoods," and the Little German Band, singing German and American folk songs. Also featured were the Nittany Knights barbershop chorus and students from the Music Academy.

Image: "A Town-Gown Adventure," Penn State Alumni News, Oct. 10, 1967

According to the Arts Festival website, the first Sidewalk Sale and Exhibition consisted “of people hanging work on snow fence along ‘The Wall’ on the southern border of the Old Main lawn. The show wasn’t juried, so you could buy art that was good, or not so good, created by professionals and amateurs. You could even buy kittens.”

After the festival was over, Arts and Architecture Dean Jules Heller prophetically said, "This year we only scratched the surface ... in years to come, when people want to know what is going on in all the arts, they will come to Central Pennsylvania to find out."

More than 50 years later, the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts — more fondly known as the Arts Festival — continues strengthening bonds between the local and campus communities and will draw more than 125,000 art aficionados, young and young at heart, to the sidewalks and streets of the University Park campus and downtown State College.

This year’s event begins Wednesday, July 12, with Children and Youth Day, and runs through Sunday, July 16, bringing artists, visitors and alumni to the area from all across the country.

2017 Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts poster

2017 Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts poster, designed by Penn State Emeritus Professor of Graphic Design Lanny Sommese.

Image: Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts

A volunteer Board of Directors of representatives of the State College and Penn State communities establishes Festival policy. Three full-time professional staff members and more than 500 volunteers help make the Festival a reality each year.

Among the myriad festivities and traditions added over the years since that first successful event, are a Children and Youth Sidewalk Sale, myriad and talented performing artists, a giant sand sculpture, the Downtown State College Italian Street Painting Festival, a favorite since 1999; BookFest, founded in 2009, and the Arts Festival Races, the oldest races in Central Pennsylvania, first run in 1975 and named in honor of local running legend Sue Crowe in 2006. The Banner Exhibition and Competition is one of the festival’s signature events, displays past and present banners in the streets above festivalgoers’ heads.

1988 Arts Festival Poster

The Arts Festival poster for 1988, designed by Lanny Sommese, featuring the festival's iconic jester.

Image: Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts

The Arts Festival poster — another beloved tradition — has been designed by Lanny Sommese, emeritus professor of graphic design in the College of Arts and Architecture, for more than 30 years, a feat unrivaled in the festival industry. Sommese’s colorful posters are collector’s items and the collection is currently on display in the HUB-Robeson Center.

This year, Penn State will have a booth of its own at the Arts Festival. Located next to Willard Building, the "Art of Discovery" booth will give visitors a chance to join in on demonstrations of the art of science and the science of arts, through 3D printing, 360 degree technology, artistic robots and more. Stop in to engage in conversations about the Arts Fest and see what Penn Staters are doing to impact the arts and the world.

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Last Updated July 13, 2017