East Lansing Art Festival Goes Virtual for the First Time in 57 Years

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Courtesy Stephanie Hogan, artist

"The Music Inside Us" by Stephanie Hogan, whose work is included in this year's East Lansing Art Festival.

It’s a tradition for thousands of people to stroll the downtown streets of East Lansing one weekend in May every year. But thanks to the pandemic, for the first time in its 57 year-history, the East Lansing Art Festival will be offering a virtual festival in place of its traditional spring event.

The virtual festival is featuring access to artists’ websites, live streams of performers, online artist demonstrations, at-home activities, and more, and will culminate this Saturday, May 16, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the ELAF Facebook page. (To enjoy the event, festival goers will have to have a Facebook account, which requires a person to agree to Facebook’s terms of services with regard to that company’s collection, storage, use, and sale of their personal information.)

Artist demonstrations include a fiber art demo from Meg Croft, Woven Art Yarn Shop owner, a glass blowing demo from Lino Pretto, and metalworking from Manny Lopez.

Throughout the day, ELAF Festival Coordinator and Art Initiatives Coordinator for the City of East Lansing Heather Majano will be live on Facebook, encouraging attendees to support all of the artists who had planned on being on-site at the typical in-person event.

In fact, this year’s festival was poised to be the biggest yet – and Majano’s first time coordinating. (Just weeks in advance of last year’s event, City Manager George Lahanas abruptly fired the festival director and the City took over much more control of the festival.)

“We made the decision to cancel the festival,” Majano said about this year’s event, “but it really felt unsettling, and it made me feel uneasy about canceling the festival because so many people’s income is tied to the festival.”

“My assistant Tim Lane and I came up with this idea, and are so grateful that city leadership is on board with it, because it’s totally new experiment to have a virtual festival,” she said. “We thought it would be fun to encourage the community via social media to continue supporting the artists. That kind of idea has been reaffirmed over and over by the amount of community support people are giving to local businesses.”

The festival along Albert Avenue just a year ago, when the weather was perfect.

Over the years, the annual festival has evolved from a sidewalk street fair to an elaborate juried art festival. Records show anywhere from 60-70,000 people in attendance on the two-day weekend event (in sync with the MSU Craft Fair).Typically, the festival invites 180 artists to have display exhibitions, but this year, they aimed to up that number.

“We had increased our footprint this year though, and were inviting over 200 to join us this year,” Majano said. “With the reopening of Albert Avenue, we thought it was a great opportunity to make the festival a little bit bigger, and have more artists, and a little bit more variety because of that.”

A day of interaction

Although people will not be able to stroll the sidewalks, gazing upon ceramics, pencil drawings, photographs, woven art, textiles, metal sculptures, yard decorations, and more, Majano hopes many will start a new tradition of ‘virtually’ attending the festival. All exhibiting artists have links to their work, and where you can buy on the ELAF website (separate from Facebook).

Scheduled poetry and musical performances will now take place in a Facebook live or Zoom call format. The first scheduled performance is The Amazing Clark, featuring comedy, puppets and magic at 10:30 a.m. The Swift Brothers, a Lansing acoustic duo, will perform original music at 1p.m.

Joseph Harris will perform a poetry reading at noon, followed by ELAF Poetry Journal Poets at 4:30 p.m., and The Last Gasp Collective will perform live music at 5p.m.

Courtesy Daniel J. Hogan

On Saturday, Majano plans to be interacting live on Facebook, engaging in comments from the community, sharing artists’ websites, Etsy pages, and encouraging people to vote for People’s Choice Awards.

So far, people have been pretty supportive of the necessary shift, according to Majano. “The community has been really interactive. We posted the People’s Choice Award voting on Saturday, and they’ve been very supportive. We actually have over 200 votes for our nominees (as of Monday, May 10). People are excited, but I think they’re also intrigued by what’s going to happen, and how it’s going to happen.”

A big investment for many artists, and now a lot of uncertainty

Artists have also reached out to festival coordinators, and thanked them for not totally cancelling the event.

For husband and wife artists, Daniel J. Hogan and Stephanie Hogan, this event is usually their largest, and sets the precedent for an entire season of art fairs and festivals. Daniel J. Hogan’s art has most-recently been displayed at Blue Owl Coffee in East Lansing, but his first art festival appearance was the 2018 East Lansing Art Festival, in the Emerging Artist tent.

Daniel J. Hogan

“This literally changed my art career overnight,” Hogan, who focuses on drawing, painting, and cartoons, said. “After seeing how well I could do at large art festivals, I pivoted to making them a priority going forward.”

For this year’s original 2020 festival plans, Hogan even purchased a new Ford Transit Connect van to haul his and his wife Stephanie’s art to and from the grounds. He also purchased a professional quality festival tent, a canopy, and mesh display walls. The two investments added up to $26,000. “I based this choice on my previous two seasons’ sales, and my successes at the ELAF was a big part of that choice.”

Stephanie Hogan, an artist focused on mixed-media paintings, also had big plans for this year’s annual festival. She spent many hours behind-the-scenes preparing.

Stephanie Hogan

“A successful festival season requires so much preparation” she said. “First and foremost is usually creating the artwork, but there is also a significant time and money investment in less glamorous things like framing and packaging, designing displays, developing marketing materials, creating inventory lists and price tags, making travel arrangements as necessary and making sure you have absolutely everything you will need to create memorable experiences for your collectors during each show.”

While the husband and wife couple were planning on debuting new pieces in-person at their respective festival tents, they have gotten creative with different options.

“We have been trying to do something special for our followers, and for ourselves really, on the days of cancelled events (there are a lot). For example, last weekend, in lieu of another cancelled festival, I launched a collection of 25 brand-new original artworks on my website. This weekend, we are considering joining in the virtual fun, setting up one of our festival booths in the backyard, and going live on Facebook ourselves, with a virtual showcase of some of our charming and colorful artwork. It’s fun for us, and lets us interact with our collectors.”

Daniel J. Hogan understands the need to cancel the festival, and stands by ELAF staff and volunteers, but also can’t help but think of the financial hit. The festival was his highest-grossing show for the last two years. “I think the virtual event is a good idea, “he said. “It’s at least something that helps promote artists.”

Stephanie agrees. “I’m glad that East Lansing Art Festival is making an effort to adapt, and to support its artists and the community with a virtual event. I’m interested to see how it comes together, because this may be our reality for a long time.”

Courtesy Daniel J. Hogan

Other festival organizers will be watching what happens here

Other regional and national art festivals are also curious as to how the ELAF virtual setting will come together also, and frequently reaching out to Majano for advice.

“I think being a frontrunner in this kind of event is to our advantage. While there may be mistakes, people are excited about the novelty of it still,” Majano said.

The first hurdle of transitioning the festival, rather than cancelling was initially the budget, until Jackson National Life decided to keep their commitment as the Paramount Sponsor.

“The next hurdle is technology,” she said. “We rely on it so much. I’m hoping people are patient and understand that we’re learning right along with them.”

Ultimately, the festival aims to display support for artists, and the East Lansing community.

“I think it would have been definitely the easiest route to just cancel the festival, and say’ see you next year,’” Majano said. “I think having this virtual event is hopefully proving we’re committed to the festival, to the artists, and to the community. I really want people to know that we’re in it for the long haul.”

Plans for the 2021 Festival are already underway, and the first step is offering all participating 2020 artists a secured spot for next year’s event, and rehiring all scheduled performers. Majano also thinks the virtual component will be included in aspects of the hopefully-in-person 2021 event.

“It is nice knowing I’ll for sure be back in 2021 and can prepare,” Daniel Hogan said. “I used part of my booth fee refund to take an online art class to help build up my painting and illustration skills. I’m looking forward to returning next year with my best offerings yet.”

Festival t-shirts are available for purchase through the website of RetroDuck, a downtown East Lansing small business.

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