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Volunteering at the Utah Arts Festival is a family reunion for this 25-year festival veteran

Deseret News - 6/12/2019

SALT LAKE CITYCindy Hanson has been volunteering at the Utah Arts Festival for 25 years.

"At least, that's what my friend Sandy tells me," she joked.

Sandy Hiskey, her college friend, introduced Hanson to the festival way back when the two were in school together in the mid-'90s.

"She said, 'You've got to do this wonderful event.' … And I've always liked art, so I thought, 'Well, there's two things I like,'" Hanson told the Deseret News.

This year marks the 43rd year of the Utah Arts Festival, which was started to promote the arts and encourage community in Salt Lake in 1979. Since then, it has become a staple of Salt Lake life and last year saw over 80,000 people attend. Each summer on the fourth weekend in June, the festival takes over Library and Washington Squares in downtown Salt Lake.

The festival maintains a full-time staff of four people as well as 28 seasonal program coordinators, whose assignments range from beverages to graphic design to urban arts. Stage and production crews also work during the event. With such a small staff, the success of the Utah Arts Festival really depends on its volunteers.

More than 1,000 volunteers come to support the festival every year, according to Kaye Wankier, the volunteer coordinator. The volunteer page on the festival's website states, "Volunteers are truly the life blood of the Utah Arts Festival," and it's a belief festival organizers live by.

But how do festival organizers keep their volunteers, that life blood, coming back year after year? In much the same ways that they keep Arts Festival patrons returning: A vibrant, interesting art experience.

For Hanson, it's the festival's performance artists that keep her engaged. "I love the street art," she said. "It's amazing. They always bring in unique things you didn't know existed."

Over the years, the festival has featured more than a few unique things that festival attendees may not have previously known about. In 2014, they brought in Strange Fruit, an Australian performing arts company who performed on top of 15-foot high fiberglass poles that swayed and bent to music and the drama the company acted out. A couple of years later, the festival brought the Neighbourhood Watch Stilts International from the U.K., a performing arts company who made the most of stilts. More recently, festival attendees saw the Oakland, California, based vertical dance group Bandaloop — while attached to wires — on the side of the library's glass, southeast wall.

For this year, festival organizers decided to go prehistoric.

Instead of aerial dancers or actors swaying on poles, 2019 Utah Arts Festival attendees will find a group of giant dinosaurs invading Library and Washington Squares. "Saurus," a performance piece from the Netherlands-based theater company Close Act Theatre will "charge through the crowds, looking for food to calm their hunger," according to Close Act Theatre's website. For those concerned about their safety, Close Act has these calming words: "There is a widespread sigh of relief as the Sauruses start eating plants. Ah, vegetarians!"

The 16-foot-tall, 24-foot-long dinosaur puppets are controlled by costumed performers on stilts and will interact with the festival crowd each day it runs at 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.

But, of course, the festival will have more going on than high-profile performance groups. The festival also boasts an impressive lineup of musicians who include the Steel Woods, Caroline Rose and others, and the Fear No Film festival. There will also be literary performances from poets and writers, as well as workshops on pop-up books, comic book techniques and creative writing. Also performing at the festival are several dance groups, including Samba Fogo and the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Ballet West dancers Katlyn Addison and Joshua Whitehead will perform two new pieces commissioned by the Utah Arts Festival.

Oh, and then there are the artists. Hanson especially loves interacting with and supporting the local artists at the festival's Artist Marketplace.

"Every year I budget $50 and I buy something," she said. Over the years, she's amassed ceramic mugs, earrings, bracelets and a few small paintings that hang on her wall.

More than simply buying art, however, the festival has taught Hanson about what it takes to make a piece of art.

"I don't think when you start looking at it, you appreciate what goes into art. And then you see and you hear the stories of what it takes to make the pieces, and you realize why it's so expensive," Hanson explained.

The Utah Arts Festival has booths for over 170 visual artists working in mediums such as pastels, glass, printmaking, photography and wood. Many artists come back year after year to take advantage of the largest multidisciplinary arts event in Utah.

And like the artists, many volunteers also return again and again — in fact, it's those friendships the volunteers make that, for Hanson, at least, is the main appeal of working at the festival.

"What makes it fun is going back and seeing (other volunteers) because some of those people I only get to see when I volunteer at the arts festival," Hanson said. "… My absolute favorite part is the people. And I like the art, but I love seeing the people. That's what keeps me coming back."

If you go …

What: The Utah Arts Festival

When: June 20-23, noon-11 p.m.

Where: Library Square, 200 E. 400 South

How much: $15 for adults, $8 for seniors and military, free for kids under 12; discounts and packages available online


Note: The festival offers an $8 lunchtime special on Thursday and Friday from noon-3 p.m.

CREDIT: Kaitlin Hoelzer, Deseret News