RiverArtsFest: More Than an Art Market

Photo courtesy of RiverArtsFest

by Kathleen Stevens

Photo courtesy of RiverArtsFest


While most attendees and artists think of the RiverArtsFest as an annual opportunity to buy and sell art, local arts education programs and art educators know the volunteer-run River Arts organization is also an avid supporter for local arts education. This year alone, River Arts will provide over $100,000 in funding to local arts education via five separate programs:  the Art in the Making program that places master artists in local K-12 classrooms for the duration of a collaborative project, the Special Resources Fund that provides grants to art educators, scholarships to local art students pursing art degrees at local colleges, the new Emerging Artist Program, and distribution of free tickets to local K-12 students and their families.


The RiverArtsFest Art in the Making Program provides K-12 students with school-based opportunities to collaborate with professional artists on an intensive project that is then installed on school grounds. The program is funded through an ArtsFirst grant from the First Tennessee Foundation and ArtsMemphis, in addition to revenue from the RiverArtsFest event itself. This school year, master classes will be taught at Rozelle CAPA Elementary, Willow Oaks Elementary, Snowden School, Colonial Middle, Havenview Middle, University Middle, Overton High, Whitehaven High, Central High, White Station High, and Arlington High schools.


At Rozelle CAPA Elementary, Greely Myatt, a sculpture professor at the University of Memphis, is currently working with elementary students in third through fifth grades to design quilt blocks using the quilt code historically used along the Underground Railroad. The students’ quilt block designs will then be fabricated in metal by University of Memphis sculpture students, and the final work will be installed at the elementary school. Projects like this provide art education opportunities to a broad span of participants in different stages of their artistic and academic journeys. While much of the focus can and should rest on how Rozelle students benefit from working directly with a professional artist at such a young age, it’s equally important for art students at the university level to have opportunities to participate in large-scale fabrication processes for public art installations.


Though the majority of the artists who participate in K-12 arts education programming through RiverArtsFest are local, the program started when several artists participating in the River Arts Fest offered to provide an educational opportunity for a local school in exchange for lodging during their stay and a small supply honorarium. The program has evolved organically over the last twelve years; by now, more than thirty professional artists have participated in master classes with local K-12 art students, and these events occur year-round. Local artists also provide workshops for visual arts instructors at Tennessee Arts Education Association conferences and at Shelby County Schools District Learning Days, providing continuing arts education to area art teachers.


Special Resources Fund grants are awarded to local schools and nonprofit organizations. More than 750 people in the Frayser community participated in an art project based at two Achievement District elementary schools under the direction of local artist Lurlynn Franklin. The Binghampton-based Carpenter Art Garden received funding for both a specific art project and for their ongoing weekly art classes. Projects such as these extend arts education outside the classroom walls and help contextualize art as something that can (and should) thread through every aspect of our lives.


Through the RiverArtsFest scholarship program, $1000 merit-based scholarships are awarded to students from all five local Memphis colleges with 4-year undergraduate art programs. Two undergraduate scholarships are awarded per institution, with an additional graduate scholarship awarded to the University of Memphis, the sole remaining institution in Memphis with an ongoing graduate art program. Scholarship funds are used by students at their discretion; many are used to fund art materials or to provide funding for professional opportunities such as exhibition application fees and framing or shipping expenses.


The RiverArtsFest Emerging Artist Program, funded through an “Arts Build Communities” grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission and Memphis Brand Initiative, is a new addition to their arts education lineup, designed for regional artists beginning their careers who lack experience exhibiting and selling work in any venue. Participants in the Emerging Artist Program go through the same application and jury selection process as artists admitted into the River Arts Fest and must be selected by the jury as festival participants in order to qualify for the Emerging Artist Program. These three emerging artists participated in a half-day seminar providing guidance on how to succeed as a festival artist, preparing them for participation in RiverArtsFest. Guest speakers included an experienced festival artist, a local gallerist, and a contract attorney. They receive a no-cost booth space, tent and display fixtures to participate in River Arts Fest as a selected artist, and they are assigned a mentor to provide ongoing support throughout the span of the program.


RiverArtsFest itself features two areas designed specifically for art education for children and adults. Each year, between 4000-6000 pieces of art are created by attendees. The ArtsZone Artists at Work demonstration area, supported by grants from AutoZone and ArtsMemphis, features local artists working and answering questions about their process throughout the duration of the festival. These local artists demonstrate papermaking, metalsmithing, painting, blown glass, woodwork on the lathe, and pottery on the wheel.


Few arts festivals in the country focus specifically on using the funds raised by the festival itself to fund local arts education; this focus makes RiverArtsFest unique and helps explain its ranking as the 7th best fine arts festival in the country in Sunshine Artist Magazine’s annual artist survey. With over 500 applicants annually, artists attending from 38 different states, and 20-30% of the artists participating in the festival sales being from the Memphis region, the River Arts Fest is using its national reach to support local artists at every stage in their professional development. From the starry-eyed third grader deciding she wants to be an artist for the first time to the hopeful graduate with a new art degree to the seasoned art professional, RiverArtsFest and its volunteers provide meaningful, measurable assistance to artists and the arts in our community.


Photo courtesy of RiverArtsFest


Thanks to Chuck Mitchell, Bonnie Thornton, Angela Less, Lee Askew, Debbie Ford, and Tom Wilson for information on RiverArtsFest and its programs.


Kathleen Stevens is a Memphis-based artist working in multiple mediums.