Festival at Forty

On a recent evening meeting at the San Chez restaurant, a line of volunteers for the Festival of the Arts in Grand Rapids help themselves from a generous buffet, while small groups haggle over nametags and a few kids giggle in a corner.  Co-chairs Kate Scheid and Tina Zinn address the room briefly, then hear from various committees.

Several reports are interrupted with laughter and kidding, and the whole thing feels a bit more like a family reunion than a meeting of one of the largest volunteer-run arts festivals in the country.

That’s because it’s both. 

The first festival, held in 1970 and inspired by the previous year’s installation of Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse sculpture, featured only two stages and didn’t require the closing of any streets.  This year festival officials expect nearly 500,000 attendees for the June 5-7 event that features a wide range of art activities for all ages.

With a three-day schedule that presents a dizzying array of nearly 300 live performances and several venues to take in the visual arts, it's an understatement to say that co-chairs, Zinn, 47, and Scheid, 30, have been busy. Both are in the second year of a three-year commitment they took on when they agreed to chair the event.

But even with the intimidating job as co-chairs, Zinn and Scheid display great poise because they are steeped in a rich tradition of volunteering that is now in reaching its third generation. 

Second Generation Innovation
As the second generation of Festival leaders rises through the ranks, Zinn and Scheid are helping the festival weather its mid-life crisis gracefully, both by bringing the focus back to its roots in local art and by innovating.  Veterans say that Festivals early in the event's history were smaller, but they had a stronger emphasis in the arts that can be overshadowed sometimes by the presence of the variety of food booths.

Zinn and Scheid are giving a nod to the importance of local art by launching a Saturday trolley that will offer tours of Heritage Hill and stop on the Avenue for the Arts, potentially bringing focus to dozens of artists who haven’t previously been a part of Festival.  “We want to foster relationships with non-traditional artists, too,” says Zinn of the effort.

Festival is also changing the way it communicates.  It recently launched a comprehensive new website donated by Fusionary Media, addition to a Facebook fan page, a Twitter account, a Festival blog, and a YouTube link.

Come the weekend of Festival, volunteers will be tweeting as well as uploading photos and video to the site in real time, allowing local art and regional music to be experienced by visitors both near and far.  For the first time this year, committee members used Craigslist to solicit volunteers for the plethora of tasks that go into pulling off such a large event. 

Lifelong Commitment to the Arts
Self-described "professional volunteer" Fred Bivins is one who helps keep the tradition of community support alive.   Bivins, 59, is Zinn’s brother-in-law, and he’s been supporting Festival in some capacity since 1974, when he first worked on the cinema committee.  He co-chaired the festival in 1986 and his daughter Chris became the first second-generation co-chair in 2003.  This year, he and his wife Gina, also a past co-chair, will spend most of their time managing the regional arts exhibition, which he calls “tremendous.” 

Promotion of local art is a cause that is close to his heart, Bivens says. But that passion comes with a price. To ensure the art was showcased perfectly last year,  Bivins spent 67 days in a row in the former Grand Rapids art museum.  When asked what he gets out of the volunteer experience, he grins and replies: “Sore feet, sore hips.”

Then after a pause, he answers at length: “When we open the show and you walk in the gallery, it’s like magic.  You know it’s all regional art.

"When you see all the energy and effort that went into making the art, and you see all the energy and effort that went into putting it up, and you see the audience response, that is such a wonderful reward all in itself.”

That commitment is either contagious or genetic, as Bivins is just one of 13 family members that Zinn counts as being annual Festival volunteers.  Zinn’s  daughter helped design this year’s poster, her sister Terri volunteers yearly, and her other children have traditionally helped her run the Kid’s Paint-In.  This year, for the first time, two of her grandchildren – ages 6 and 7 - will participate, an event that reminds Zinn of her first experience at Festival in 1970.

“Festival was my playground, and it inspired my life-long love of music.  Growing up, I took for granted the variety of experiences I had.  As an adult, I realize that this may be the only time in a child’s life that they can hear a symphony or paint with such freedom.” 

So in addition to taking on the three-year commitment of being a Festival co-chair, Zinn has passed her love of the arts and passion for volunteering on to the next generation.  “Every one of my kids volunteers.  You always give back,” she says.

Growing up at Festival
Fellow 2009 co-chair Scheid agrees.  She grew up in a Festival family, too – so much so that she doesn’t even remember her first Festival.  “I never knew that you could go to Festival and not work,” she laughs. 

All these years later, she keeps volunteering. “This is a true community celebration of the arts and such a gift to be able to give to the community every year,” she says.  Scheid’s brother Ben was a 2007 co-chair.  She counts seven family members as yearly volunteers. 

If Shawn and Stephanie Bergsma play their cards right, their children will likely be saying the same things 20 years from now.  Shawn, 35, co-chaired the festival in 2004 and his wife Stephanie, 39, is on board to co-chair next year.  Unlike some of the other volunteers, Shawn and Stephanie came to Festival as adults, never having attended before they became volunteers.  They note that some of their best friends have come from Festival and talk about how they keep coming back because of those relationships. 

“It’s fun,” says Stephanie.  “It feels good to be a part of something that promotes art and builds community.  We stay because of the relationships, but also because there’s a lot of pride in seeing all the work that goes into pulling the event off.”  Stephanie describes the behind-the-scenes environment as family-friendly.  “Neither one of us grew up in it; now we’re starting our own traditions with our kids.”

“We like the diverse environment, and we want our kids to understand the benefit of volunteering and contributing to their city,” adds Shawn, who first became involved in 1999 at the invitation of a client.

Their children - Elliot, 9, and Olivia, 7 – have been involved every step of the way.  Both have been coming to Festival virtually all their lives and will be happily contributing this year, both in the store and on Calder stage, where Elliot has been comfortable as an emcee since he was only four years old.  Their brown eyes gleam as they talk about their friends and yearly Festival traditions, from getting balloons and painting to eating at the waffle cone booth and listening to music.  Elliot wants to be a co-chair someday, and Olivia is proud to be volunteering in the store for the first time this summer.

As she looks ahead to her job co-chairing the festival in 2010, Stephanie Bergsma is excited about the challenge and hopeful that coming years will bring new volunteers – both individuals and families – with fresh talent and perspective.  “I came into this because of the art, but now it’s about the people,” she says.  “We always welcome new faces to join the Festival family and promote the arts.”

Gina Bivins, Zinn’s sister, agrees wholeheartedly.  As the evening sunshine slants in San Chez’s third-story windows, she leans across the table and tries to get a word in edgewise with her husband Fred.  “It really is a family event to come down to, and it’s a family event to work on it.”

Stephanie Doublestein writes and blogs about food, business, and parenting, among other things.  She lives in East Grand Rapids with her husband and their two young daughters.


Calder Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids Festival (4)

Photographs by Yolanda Gonzalez -All Rights Reserved
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