Allentown Art Festival

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The Allentown Art Festival is an annual arts festival held in the Allentown neighborhood of Buffalo, New York. Each year on the second weekend of June, the outdoor art festival attracts tens of thousands of people to Buffalo. In 2007, it celebrated its 50th anniversary. Since its modest beginnings as a small art show in 1958, the Allentown Art Festival has become not only Buffalo's urban rite, but also a symbol for the enduring character of this re-emerging rustbelt region. It has earned an important place in Buffalo's cultural and social life and a national reputation for excellence.

The Allentown Art Festival is produced and presented by the Allentown Village Society, Inc., a cultural not-for-profit organization. This organization is entirely composed of unpaid volunteers, whose ranks have seldom grown beyond 30 active members. Although the festival itself is over in one long weekend, the volunteers work year-round: compiling and mailing festival applications to artists; receiving, organizing and jurying applications returned from artists; planning the physical locations of artists and vendors within the festival area; meeting with City and County officials; running the annual art festival poster contest; advertising and awarding scholarships to local art students; and last but not least, preparing for and executing the festival itself. Their labors have borne fruit beyond the annual Allentown Art Festival weekend and beyond the boundaries of the Allentown neighborhood of Buffalo.

The Allentown Art Festival has given identity and brought recognition to a once decaying neighborhood and has had an important role in its revitalization, while giving the City of Buffalo its largest cultural event. In the spring of 1958, a small group of other Allentown business owners proposed an event to stimulate business in the neighborhood. The meeting gave birth to the Allentown Village Society. By August, plans were in place for a September outdoor art show on the streets of the area. In 1959, a second art show was held in June. The second weekend in June has been the official Art Festival weekend ever since.

The festival grew in size and popularity through the 1960s. The character of the 1960s Art Festival was almost carnival-like and included sidewalk performances and fashion shows as well as art exhibits. In 1970, a disturbance in a bar, after the Festival had ended, spilled into Allen Street. Although it was unrelated to the Festival, it became known as the "Allentown Art Festival riot". Its aftermath threatened the future of the Festival. With the potential loss of the festival, came the realization that the Art Festival had become an important element in the fabric of Buffalo.

Between the 1970 and 1971 Festivals, quiet negotiations were held between the Allentown Village Society and the City of Buffalo. Close examination of all aspects of the Festival resulted in a scaled-back event, with about half the number of exhibitors, no craft exhibitors, no live entertainment, and a better-defined event area.

With these changes, the quality of the application pool began to improve. This was evidenced through the quality of the art that was accepted into the Festival over the ensuing years and by the favorable response from the artists and craftsmen who participated in the Festivals. In 1977, the Allentown Village Society implemented a jurying process to screen the quality of artwork in advance. Each year since then, the Society has assembled an independent panel of art and crafts professionals, who select the Festival exhibitors from the applicant pool by reviewing slides of each applicant's work in a blind scoring and selection process. Preparation for jurying day takes many hours of volunteers’ time over many weeks, but the results have been well worth the effort. In 1993, the quality process was refined further by the implementation of a panel of independent street jurors. The street jurors monitor the work displayed on the street during the Festival, insuring that it meets Festival standards.

Through the negotiated agreements with the City, merchants are not allowed to display merchandise outside their stores during festival hours and street art (beyond the juried artists) and music is not permitted. From 2003 - 2005 the Music is Art festival, a charity event founded by Goo Goo Dolls member Robby Takac, was held on adjoining streets concurrent with the Art Festival. The Allentown Village Society met with Takac and city leaders to find an alternative date or location for the Music is Art Festival; in 2008, the Music is Art Festival found a comfortable home in Buffalo at the Albright Knox Art Gallery and historic Delaware Park.

Controversy has surrounded the festival in recent years. Organizers were engaged in a long and public dispute with local merchants, ultimately barring them from displaying merchandise in front of stores during festival hours. In 2007 the Music is Art festival, a charity event founded by Goo Goo Dolls member Robby Takac was successfully prevented from operating on adjoining streets by festival organizers as it had the previous three years.

In 2000, The Allentown Art Festival was designated a Local Legacy by the Library of Congress. The Local Legacies project was designed to document and pay tribute to the nation's rich cultural heritage. As a result, the history and photographs of the Festival are preserved in the Library of Congress.

Today, the Allentown Art Festival features about 450 juried exhibitors annually. Nearly every state, as well as Canada and Europe, has been represented. Prize awards for the exhibitors submitting work for formal judging have grown to nearly $20,000 annually.

The proceeds of the Festival have been put back into the community, of which the Festival has become such an important part. The Society pays the City of Buffalo and Erie County, combined, approximately $15,000 annually in festival-related fees. Since 1991, the Allentown Village Society has donated nearly $284,000 to local organizations and schools and has sponsored art-related scholarships totaling almost $232,000.

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