Where do you go when your arts festival is already successfully 16 years old and attracting 10,000 folks each July? You go epic – or so says Angela Jossy, director of Art on the Ave, which bills itself as Tacoma’s biggest arts festival and which sees its 16th year this Sunday on Sixth Avenue. And what does epic look like? Well, an extra city block, carnival rides, a circus tent, four art installations and over 120 art and craft vendors for a start, and that’s not even counting the Grub Crawl, wine and beer tastings and five-stage band lineup.
"We always want to get better," Jossy says. "Last year was pretty much perfect: the weather, the food, the crowds. We were so happy and proud. But we thought, how do you get better than that? You go epic. We tried to improve every aspect in some way."
The most obvious way is in square footage: Art on the Ave this year will stretch from Cedar Street past last year’s eastern boundary to State Street, including Jason Lee Middle School playfield. This gives not only an extra block of closed-off road but the playfield itself, which will be filled with carnival rides (the only thing that requires paid tickets in this free festival) and a circus tent. The carnival rides include a 24-foot climbing wall, a giant slide, a cyclone swing, an obstacle course and a "wacky fun center"; cirque-style tent performers include aerialists Vuelva la Luna, magicians, a juggler, hoop dancers, a belly dance troupe and a Frisbee-trick champion.
"We had the Jason Lee field and we knew from feedback that some people felt it wasn’t really a family-friendly festival," explains Jossy. "Now there’s something for everyone."
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The extra road space has a slight incline, so it’s perfect for one of the four art installations planned for the festival: a community chalking event, with chalk supplied by the festival. Other installations include giant puzzles made with Jossy’s own photo-art of giant dogs near Tacoma landmarks printed on donated billboard vinyl and backed with foam, ready for festival-goers to put together. There’ll also be a paint-it-yourself billboard mural tied to the Jason Lee fence, with paint supplied by the Children’s Museum, and a slow-motion paint installation by artist Eileen Newton, who’ll stack up recycled materials on the playfield and slowly pour paint over them all day long.
To add to the art component, Jossy and her crew limited the 120-plus vendors to purely art and craft. Then there’s the music lineup – this year increased to five stages – which includes Brewfish, Mighty High, Mirrorgloss, Nolan Garrett, The Breaklites and more.
Finally, the festival’s Grub Crawl, where a dozen 6th Avenue restaurants sell easily-carried $6 plates, will be given a theatrical element as the Crawl judges - foodie Jared Norton, KING5 Evening Magazine’s Saint Bryan and Jackie Casella of The Weekly Volcano - will tour the festival in a golf cart to sample the plates, announcing the winner at 1:45 p.m. on the Jazzbones stage. There’ll also be a tasting garden with local brewers and winemakers like Tacoma Brewing Company and The Harmon offering five tastings for $10.
That income, says Jossy, goes straight to fund the free festival, which has traditionally been run through donations and sponsorship.
"We’re trying to bring some dollars into the festival," she explains.
And if you see a helicopter hovering around during the day? That’s part of Operation Epic, Jossy says.
"We never really know how many people attend the festival – no-one gives us accurate numbers," she says. "So this year we have an aerial camera going around every hour to count heads. It’ll help with planning, promotion and seeing what people like, where they are."
So that next year, Art on the Ave will go from epic to – well – even more epic.