Springfield Arts Council celebrates 50 years of free art

By Katrina Eresman

It’s 7 a.m. on a Friday in the middle of June, and there are lawn chairs lined up everywhere. Veteran’s Park, home of the Springfield Summer Arts Festival, used to be called Cliff Park for obvious reasons. Against these cliffs, which house bits of Wittenberg University and surrounding neighborhoods, is a stage that was resurrected in 2005. The stage roughly faces south toward the opposite side of the park, which is lined with a bike path and Clark County’s Buck Creek. Happy faces will fill the park by nightfall.

Lawn chairs and blankets were being used to reserve seats in the early morning long before 2005, the time of the renovation. In 1967, Springfield started a tradition that would become an integral piece of the community in the next half a century. Each summer, the Springfield Arts Council presents a month of live arts, including music of all genres, theatre, musicals and more. For free. Yes, free. A month-long, admission-free arts festival. (There are even flushing toilets!)

Hot fun in the summertime

In the fall, a small group of full-timers at the Springfield Arts Council begins planning for the next summer’s festival. Tim Rowe, the current managing artistic director, attends booking conferences, organized events that showcase touring acts. He then takes that information back to a committee of volunteers.

“They look at everything and then we start plugging things into a schedule,” Rowe explains. “Sort of like a jigsaw puzzle based on the acts that are available, the ones that are affordable to us, based on their open dates, based on our open dates and trying to get them all lined up.”

By the late winter, the schedule is finished. The focus of this lineup isn’t on getting big names, like it may be with other outdoor, ticketed venues. Instead, the goal is variety—the more variance between acts, the more chances community members find something new and different to enjoy.

“The festival’s been built on the fact that this is a place where community can come together,” Rowe says. “Remember, it’s admission-free, so there’s no price barrier to keep anybody away. There’s no dress code to keep anyone away.”

All are welcome, and all do come. Pretty much everyone in the Springfield area has at least heard about the Summer Arts Festival, if not attended, an event. Lawn chairs are placed, friends are made and traditions are formed at Veteran’s Park each year.

“We start getting phone calls in December and January asking what the acts are going to be or specifically what’s coming around the Fourth of July because people are planning their family vacations … and they’re trying to plan their summer around something they might want to bring their family or friends to see,” Rowe says.

Made possible largely by grants, sponsorships and donations, it’s a gift to the community that does not go unappreciated.

Everybody get together

It was the mid-1960s. Tensions were high across the country, and festivals were popping up everywhere.

“You have to put yourself back in 1967, some social unrest and Vietnam War and all those things going on—and communities around the country were organizing these outdoor festivals,” Rowe says. “It was a way to bring the community together in one place and have this positive experience.”

In Springfield, various groups were working on productions—the Springfield Symphony and the Civic Opera Company, in particular. One lady named Esther Manuel was part of a small group invested in bringing the local arts together.

“The music teacher at Wittenberg [University] decided to put on a play in the summer, and people liked it,” Manuel says of the festival’s humble origins. “Everybody was saying, ‘Well we ought to have a summer arts festival.’”

Around the same time, the city of Springfield was putting some of its tax dollars toward the Springfield Symphony Orchestra for a concert series that would take place at the band shell in Snyder Park, a nearby neighbor to what was then still called Cliff Park.

“During the ’60s is when all of the festivals nationwide started, and that’s because the whole National Endowment for the Arts came into being,” says Chris Moore, who Manuel hired as executive director for the organization in January of 1974. “All of the state arts councils started to form and so this whole grassroots movement of community arts started in the mid-60s.”

Jackson Wiley, who was at the time the conductor of the Springfield Symphony, thought it appropriate to take the seed money he’d received and use it to start a summer festival, showcasing more than just classical music. Manuel was part of the group that Wiley gathered to plan a lineup that would be appealing to the community at large. They called their group the Springfield Arts Festival, Inc.

“The professor who got it started, I remember the summer of 1968 he did the show, The Boy Friend, and performed it in Cliff Park,” Manuel recalls. “That really kicked us into gear, the public came out like crazy to see that. So from ’68 to when I hired Chris [Moore] in ’74, it was the board trying to figure out how they could make more out of this than one show a year.”

Once Moore began full-time, Springfield Arts Festival, Inc. became the Springfield Arts Council, and Manuel and Moore worked closely together to expand the festival, shaping it into what it is today. Being admission-free from the beginning, it wasn’t easy to come up with the money to make it happen. The first step was finding the funds to hire Moore in the first place.

“We applied to the Ohio Arts Council for a grant to fund an executive director’s position,” Moore says, “and we were awarded the grant in November or December of 1973.”

From there, Moore and Manuel looked for additional funding to help bring in more local, regional and national acts.

“I don’t think there’s anybody that had money that we didn’t go see then, in 1972, ’73 ’74,” Manuel says. “It was a big job. … It was no money, lots of work and good teamwork, lots of volunteers that just stepped right up to the plate to help us out. … Chris and I got along very well, and we tried to be creative and think of ways that we could serve the people.”

Anyone who has been to one of the Summer Arts Festival events in the park is familiar with the term “Pass the Hat.” It’s a coinage that refers to the festival’s method of taking up donations. (Though Manuel notes with laughter, “We got so many donations that we put them in n 10 cans and put the cans down in a hat that looked like Dr. Seuss hats, so we still say pass the hat, when we’re really passing cans in hats!”)

Passing the hat was, of course, a natural solution to help raise funds from those community members who could afford to help out, but Moore says it was also necessary as a reminder to the community that the festival, while admission free, is not free to put on, and that the artists were in fact being paid for their time.

“A lot of people thought the artists were performing for nothing because it didn’t cost them anything [for admission],” he says. “So that was something that we had to really engender and that’s why we started passing the hat. … We tried to offset that notion that [audience members] didn’t have to pay anything, with the idea that you could put something to be a part of, to participate, in whatever level you can, but that you realize that there is a cost involved with presenting the arts.”

Pass the hat has worked nicely, and the community does give back because they want to see the festival continue to grow just as much as the Springfield Arts Council does.

Good vibrations

“There are times in communities when people come together to protest things,” Moore says. “There are not as many opportunities sometimes for people to come together and be able to express the positive side of their community, and I think this festival provides that opportunity. [It exists] so that people could come together in a safe environment and not with any cause other than to have a good time … and to mainly experience some form of arts that they haven’t experienced before and develop a taste and an appreciation for it.”

The fact that the free admission to this festival allows people to experience new arts for the first time risk-free is a huge part of the Springfield Arts Council’s mission: “To build a better community by sharing the performing arts with all citizens of Springfield, Clark County, and the region.” Free admission allows people of all backgrounds and lifestyles to enjoy performances they may not normally see. The festival has also created opportunities for both children and adults to participate in live theatre, an experience that can create lifelong passions and connections. Rowe himself estimates that 75 percent of his friends are people he’s met through his association with the festival.

“There’s just these threads that keep pulling this together,” he says. “I got a message a day or two ago [from a woman] whose granddaughter is in this show just to thank us for putting her in. … She says, ‘We don’t have a lot of money. It’s hard for us to participate in things. But this is free to participate, and she comes home every night talking about the friends she made.’ And it’s just like, there you are, there’s another one of those little threads that comes through there.”

Tons of people from Springfield have fond memories that would never have formed if it weren’t for the Summer Arts Festival. Lots of children attend regularly with their parents, as adults and then later with their own children.

“It allowed families to come without having to pay for kids,” Manuel says, remembering what she saw and appreciated about the festival in the first years. “The kids could come and they could run and play and the parents could be watching the show, and that’s still true today. … It does make it easier for young parents.”

Manuel also says that the festival has taught community members to appreciate the arts more, probably leading to larger return rates each year.

“There were people who had never seen these kinds of shows and it educated them to be good listeners and to be good show critics,” she says.

Unlike gated, ticketed events at larger venues, the shows at the Springfield Summer Arts festival give off friendly and welcoming vibes. It’s an open invitation to whoever is in the area for four weeks out of every summer to enjoy a performance and meet new people in the community. In a small town, it’s hard to miss. You can hear the music from Springfield’s quaint downtown nearby, or from the walkable neighborhoods situated uphill from the cliffs or from the bike path that runs through the park. Locals happily flock toward the sounds, and new folks join in every year. Even as society has changed and our lives have become more digitally driven, there’s still a huge need for the art and community that the Springfield Summer Arts Festival offers.

“It was exciting to be a part of it because it was just growing and flourishing,” Manuel says of the inaugural days of the festival. “There must have been a need or we wouldn’t have been successful.”

 The Springfield Arts Council presents the 50th annual Summer Arts Festival June 10 through July 16 at Veteran’s Park Amphitheater, 250 Cliff Park Rd. in Springfield. For a full list of performances and additional information, please visit springfieldartscouncil.org.

Reach DCP freelance writer Katrina Eresman at KatrinaEresman @DaytonCityPaper.com.

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