Last year, the Durham Arts Council called off CenterFest, its signature downtown street festival, with the stated intention of bringing it back in 2012 re-shaped, re-visioned, better and bigger than ever.
It’s back. Shape, vision and quality are yet to be judged, but as to size, the Arts Council has come through, with 130 juried artists from 18 states showing and selling their work, and 63 performing groups on five stages, said DAC Director Sherry DeVries.
“This will be the largest festival we’ve ever had,” DeVries said.
CenterFest is also back geographically: occupying the western end of the Downtown Loop after several years’ removed to a parking lot near Durham Central Park.
First held as “Street Arts” in 1974, it was North Carolina’s longest-running open-air arts festival until calling time out in 2011.
At that time, Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Shelly Green said the idea was to make CenterFest over into a less generic arts-and-crafts fair and a more distinctly Durham event, showcasing the city self-branded as “where great things happen” and drawing attendance from the entire Southeast.
“We wanted to be sure to reflect the very creative and innovative environment of the community," said DeVries.
Toward that end, planners diverged from arts and crafts per se, she said, and emphasized “entrepreneurs that have creative businesses, to give them an opportunity to showcase innovation. ... We have some really cool stuff,” said DeVries.
• Organic Transit Inc., manufacturer of pedal-solar hybrid vehicles;
• Plastibot LLC, dealer in 3D printer kits;
• ShopBot Tools, Inc., dealer in computer-controlled tools.
In reinvigorating CenterFest, “everybody was invited to give input” to help improve the festival and make it more reflective of today’s Durham, said Dan Ellison, an attorney and Arts Council board member who said he has been to every CenterFest since 1979. “There is a growing sense of it being a community arts event again,” Ellison said, “that in some ways goes back to its roots as a street arts festival that was really started in a grassroots kind of way.”
CenterFest originated both to showcase Durham artists and musicians and to link the arts and what was then called Allied Arts of Durham (housed in a former Morehead Hill residence) to the hoped-for commercial resurgence of Durham’s declining city center.
In following years, the organization changed its name, relocated to the former City Hall on Morris Street, promoted a new downtown civic center along with renovation of the Carolina Theatre and its own building, and restyled Street Arts as CenterFest to reflect an early ‘80s spirit in Durham.
The festival grew and drew, with typical two-day crowds well over 20,000 every year. But by the 21st century it was a losing proposition for the Arts Council, running $30,000 to $40,000 in the red every year.
When DAC hired DeVries in 2002, the board told her to cut expenses. She said the festival broke even in 2010.
By then, though, it had gone off-center – forced out of the Loop area by street reconstruction in 2005 and settling in the parking lot. Costs were down, but veteran CenterFest patrons said the festival wasn’t what it used to be.
“It’s good we took a year and did an in-depth planning process,” DeVries said.
“This is going to be the start of something bigger and better,” said Ellison.
“There hasn’t really, in the whole history of CenterFest, been as vibrant a (downtown) streetscape as there is now,” he said. “It’s never had the club-restaurant-bar scene that it has now. That’s going to be really interesting to see, how that and CenterFest go together.”