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Gainesville Cultural Affairs Draws Big Crowds with Annual Events

Gainesville Cultural Affairs Draws Big Crowds with Annual Events

by Bradley Osburn

Linda Piper, the Gainesville Cultural Affairs events coordinator, has been with the city for 27 years. For 20 years she has produced the Downtown Festival & Art Show and the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire. Piper has taken these small-town shows and made them nationally recognized, and she sat down with the Report to tell us all about them.

Downtown Festival & Art Show – Nov. 16-17, 2013

The Downtown Festival & Art Show started as a production in the windows of vacant buildings by the Arts Association of Alachua County. It eventually became too large for the organization to handle, so in 1993 the association asked the city to take over its production.

Back when Piper took over it was a much smaller affair. 175 artists applied for 170 booth spots and there were only $3,000 in cash prizes. Nowadays, the event costs $90,000 to produce, 600 nationally recognized artists apply for only 250 booth spots and $15,000 in cash prizes are awarded every year.

Only 29 percent of the artists come from Gainesville, while the others come from as far away as California and New York. Artists must submit digital samples of their work and booth layouts, which are then judged by teams of jurors on a 2D night and a 3D night. Those with the highest scores are awarded booth spots.

200 of the artists are entered into the competitive judging for the chance to win cash prizes. Two judges wander the show and score based on originality, execution and presence. The Best of Show booth receives a $2,000 prize, while the rest have the chance to win one of 27 other prizes.

Since 1996 the festival has ranked in the Top 200 art festivals in the nation, according to Sunshine Artists magazine. Recently, the festival moved up to the No. 10 position just in time for its 32nd anniversary. Rankings are based on surveys of sales by artists.

Piper said that because the festival is held in November, they are able to play up the holiday shopping angle.

“It’s a great opportunity for people to purchase artwork for friends and family,” she said, “or buy special one-of-a-kind gifts for friends or themselves.”

The festival is held from the Hippodrome State Theatre across University Avenue to City Hall. Piper said she does what she can to keep the streets closed as short a time as possible, but the downtown businesses remain very supportive. And they should, because the festival is expected to draw in 100,000 visitors this year alone. Corporate sponsors range from Zaxby’s to Vystar to The New York Times.

“Visitors come for the art show that just have a love for the arts,” Piper said. “We target a whole different array of people than those coming for the games. We target people that just love coming to Gainesville and love the arts.”

The event will kick off on Friday night, Nov. 15, with a Blues concert, featuring headliner Brandon Santini. Three stages will feature local acts, children can take part in the free art activity Imagination Station — run by the UF art education department — and 50 nonprofits will be on display around the Hippodrome.

Hoggetowne Medieval Faire – Jan. 25-26 and Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 2014

In 1987 the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire was just a half-day event on the grounds of the Thomas Center. In its fourth year it outgrew the center and moved to the fairgrounds. Now, the fair is a five-day, two-weekend extravaganza of swords, dancers, glass blowing, living chess and giant turkey legs.

 “I always say that Orlando has Disney, and Gainesville has Hoggetowne,” Piper said. “I consider Hoggetowne a theme park.”

Piper took over a Hoggetowne Faire that generated only $60,000, had a measly three stages for entertainment and brought in about 3,000 visitors each day. 20 years later, Piper has guided the fair to an eight-stage event with 165 artists, entertainers and street performers who entertain 12,000 daily visitors, 57 percent of which travel to Gainesville from outside the community.

Part of Piper’s push to grow the fair has been to commercialize it. Where the hardcore medieval enthusiasts want nothing but medieval imagery, Piper sees a chance to draw crowds in through more modern takes on the fair imagery, like the posters, which have evolved over the decades to allow more fantastic elements in their presentation. Two years ago, Hoggetowne introduced an online ticket sale service, which last year generated $34,000 in sales.

“One of our missions as cultural affairs has always been to provide quality arts and events to the community,” Piper said. “And we strive to keep our prices affordable so people have money to spend when they’re there on food, henna body art, having your palm read, or to buy medieval swords or ceramics or leathers.”

Hoggetowne tickets cost $15, below the standard of about $22, Piper said. She manages to keep prices down by balancing her budget, she said, and knowing exactly how much she’s spending on every part of the fair.

The Hoggetowne Faire costs $250,000 to put on every year, but in the end it has a huge economic impact, because all of the artists and entertainers spend around three weeks in the area, instead of just one weekend.

“We’re really fortunate because our community really supports these events,” Piper said. “Our community embraces these people, looks forward to their arrival and treats them really well.”

When the weather behaves, Hoggetowne generates an excess of $40,000 to $80,000 on top of what Piper spends. Excess revenue goes back into the fair to expand things like seating, stages, joust field fence replacement and a certain percent is spent on marketing for television and radio.

 

“If I had any wish it would be to expand to a four-weekend show,” she said. “Coming to Hoggetowne is like coming to Disney on the busiest weekend of the year.”

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