Inspiring generations by providing free access to a diverse display of works and performances created by the people, for the people, reflective of our community.
Festival in the Park brings the community together through free, family-friendly, memorable and inclusive experiences in visual and performing arts. Our non-profit honors the history and heritage of our signature event, The Festival in the Park, through year-long encounters with our partners engaging in arts experiences in neighborhoods across our community.
True to the vision of its founder, the late A. Grant Whitney, the Festival is intended to provide something for everyone. The Festival, with an emphasis on diversity across all ages, races, and creeds, promotes professional and amateur visual and performing artists. Through community outreach, the Festival hosts many youth and educational organizations.
Festival In the Park began in 1964 when John Belk, then President of the Chamber of Commerce suggested to Grant Whitney, an insurance executive with Belk Stores Services, to create an arts show in Freedom Park. The idea of a spring art show had been tossed around the prior year by the Chamber but had not materialized.
With the suggestion from Ms. Ernest Franklin of the Chamber’s Fine Arts Committee to tailor a festival after Copenhagen’s Tyvoli Gardens, Grant researched the weather and found that the fall season in Charlotte would be a better time for the outside show, as it is normally dry in September. The date was set to be the third week in September. Since the beginning only 6 days have been rained out, with the exception of the Hugo year.
The first Festival was sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce with a budget of $4,000 which bought the first tents. Grant located a company in Statesville to make the festive and colorful “Camelot” patterned tents that have become the Festival’s trademark.
In its first year, there were ten tents of exhibits, an art exhibit, and a few performances on the stage. Craft persons were hard to find in the early days. From this beginning, the Festival has grown to its present magnitude of over 100 tents, over 80 panels of art displayed on canopied panel boards, five small stages, the park’s band shell, a children’s “hands-on” arts and crafts area, and various special activity/performance areas. It has since become known as Charlotte’s “Granddaddy” festival.
The Chamber of Commerce decided not to continue sponsoring the event after the first year. Had it not been for Grant Whitney’s persistence, the Festival would have died. The success of the first Festival so intrigued him that he endeavored the following year. With John Belk’s approval, Whitney and his staff put together a Board of Directors from the outstanding civic leaders in Charlotte, registered the Festival as a non-profit organization, and proceeded to raise money from the board members, businesses and friends to sponsor the Festival.
He enlisted assistance from the City and they participated by furnishing firemen to set up and take down the physical arrangements and furnishing police security.
From the beginning, the event was family-oriented and no alcoholic beverages or profane exhibits or performances have been allowed. It was completely free to everyone – with something for everyone – regardless of race, creed, or position in life. The Festival’s mission has always been to bring all of the arts and crafts to as many people as possible, completely free of charge, in a relaxed setting of beauty.
In the early years, exhibitors did not pay for space and were not permitted to sell. They were required to demonstrate their art or craft with the goal of educating the people about the Arts. As the Festival grew, expenses increased and it became necessary to charge the exhibitors a fee, which resulted in permission to sell their wares. In addition, the oil embargo of the 1970’s increased travel expenses and made it difficult to attract quality artists without allowing for arts and crafts sales.
Over the years groups from other cities have visited during the festival week to gather ideas on starting their own show. Many other festivals have been patterned after this original one.
Festival in the Park has given many gifts to the community. An underground electrical system was installed at Freedom Park, with labor and materials donated by many companies in support of the Festival’s need for lighting. The Festival supervised the completion of the Band Shell, in addition to sidewalks and amphitheater seating. None of this could have been accomplished without the many volunteers and donations secured at the urgency of Grant Whitney.
Participants in all of these projects are almost too numerous to mention. One group, the local electrician union, made the Festival their major project each year, as they hook up the electrical service to each tent, stages, etc. and are on hand throughout Festival week to repair and replace equipment. This is a service for which the Festival could never afforded to pay.
THE YEAR OF HUGO
Hugo arrived on the third night of the Festival in 1989. Grant Whitney, listening to regular weather updates, ordered all exhibitors and performers to leave the Park, taking their valuable exhibits with them, hours before the Hurricane was to strike. Once the exhibitors left, Grant ordered the Festival staff to drop the tents and dismantle the stages to prepare for the storm’s impact. By 1:00 am on Friday morning, the Festival was prepared for Hugo’s onslaught. No one could have predicted the torrential storm that ravaged the park that Friday morning. A stroll through Freedom Park on Friday afternoon left a lasting impression of the storm’s devastation…trees uprooted, tents floating on the lake, panel boards blown into the woods, stages blown apart, and debris from neighboring homes spewed over the park’s landscape. Grant’s foresight and leadership minimized the damage that wrecked the Festival and enabled the festival organizers to regroup and begin planning for the following year’s festival, which would be Grant’s last at the helm.
THE NEW LEADERSHIP – THE TRANSITIONAL YEARS
Grant retired from Belk in 1987, but not from the Festival. To ensure its continuance, he identified a few new and younger leadership volunteers to develop the same enthusiasm and passion for the Arts. He guided their development and transferred his knowledge and love for the Festival. The year after Hugo, 1990, was his last active year with the Festival. Beginning in 1991, the new leadership and many of Grant’s original guards pledged their commitment to continue this community treasure. To initiate the new leadership, several obstacles arose to test their commitment to the Festival.
In 1992 the city remodeled and refurbished the lake, destroying the Festival’s electrical and mechanical infrastructure. Due to construction delays, the Festival was forced to move to the ball fields as a makeshift temporary location. Once the lake project was complete, the Festival had to contract, install, and pay for a new state of the art electrical system by the opening of the next Festival.
In 1993, the City and County merged their Parks and Recreation Departments, requiring the Festival leadership to renegotiate all contracts and initiate new relationships with all new Park staff. As a result the Festival agreed to reduce the number of days from six to four and agreed to install a main line irrigation system around the Freedom Park’s lake.
In 1994, the Festival’s board had no choice but to postpone the Festival due to the Park’s decision to remodel the main entrance of Freedom Park and to up fit the ball fields. The Board used this off year as an opportunity to review its mission and rekindle the festival spirit.
The 1995, the Festival was nearly rained out, testing the stamina of the recharged board. Since that event, the 1996 and 1997 editions had good weather and attendance grew each year to near record proportions, highlighting the youth entertainment emphasis. In 1997, Festival in the Park was awarded a Top 200 Festival Status by Sunshine Artists Magazine.
The Festival now has one paid staff member, several seasonal employees, and many volunteers, including a Festival Board of Directors and organizational committees. It welcomes over 180 artists, nearly 1,000 entertainers for a compressed three-day event. Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation Department, local city and private schools, the local electrician’s union, several key sponsors, the local media and hundreds of local volunteers ensure the Festival entertains the 140,000 plus who attend.
As the Festival is a non-profit venture, and is in large part self-sustaining with no gate revenue, collected sponsorship and fundraising represent an integral role to the success of the Festival. Private donations are solicited throughout the year by the volunteer Festival board.
History of Festival in the Park
It was winter of 1964. By national standards, Charlotte was a small city. Despite its size, Charlotte had a vibrant visual and performing arts community – with a symphony, an opera, an active artists’ league, and so much more — but no single event or venue to showcase all this talent. John Belk, the future mayor of Charlotte and then Chairman of the Charlotte Chamber, and one of his trusted business associates Grant Whitney brainstormed on a way for Charlotte to showcase this talent.
Whitney, the first-transplanted Yankee to Charlotte long before banks transformed Wall Streeters to Trade Streeters, had a vision: follow the lead of Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen and Whitney’s native city of Boston and establish an outdoor festival with colorful English carnival tents and multiple stages for musicians, actors, clowns, magicians, and other performers. Today cities throughout the country have spring and fall outdoor festivals. In 1964, it was virtually unheard of.
But there had to be more to it than just art. It had to be family-friendly, and there needed to be something for everyone. Families had to be able to afford to attend. Whitney with Belk’s and the Charlotte Chamber’s support made a pledge that there would be no entry fee — a pledge that the Board of Directors of the Festival maintains today.
To meet his goal of having something for everyone, Whitney sought out every media of art, visual and performing, and as much diversity as possible – from Hara Krishna dancers to Revolutionary War re-enactors. The only restriction he had was to bar photographic nudity to protect the family-friendly focus.
Whitney looked for the best weekend of the year to have the new Festival. He decided on the third weekend of September because meteorologists determined that was the driest weekend in Charlotte each year. While the meteorologists might have been correct in 1964, they weren’t in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo turned Festival in the Park into “Festival in the Dark.”
Whitney had everything arranged for the first Festival in 1964 except for one key component for an evening (after dark) event – electricity! It is hard to have an evening event without lighting. The local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) solved that problem. Each year, this dedicated group of electricians gave hundreds of hours of time to wire the Freedom Park lake. With the Freedom Park lake approximately eight-tenths of a mile around, that is a lot of wire. The IBEW continued to volunteer hundreds of hours each year until 1992, when the City renovated the Park and installed an electrical system around the lake.
In 1964 and the early years, it could take up to three months to set up the Festival. Today, while Festival staff start setting up three to four weeks out, most set up occurs immediately before the Festival weekend because artists now travel from show to show, carrying their own tents and displays. While this has reduced the time necessary for set up, the colorful English carnival tents which Whitney had specially made for the Festival have become part of the past.
In the early years, Whitney refused to allow any advertising or public sponsorships: this was a family-friendly event focused on the arts. The artists were not even allowed to sell their work; they could only take orders and sell their art after the Festival was over. Whitney’s bar on sponsorships and restriction on artists selling their work at the Festival changed over time as many sponsors wanted public recognition and the artists needed to be able to sell during the Festival, especially the traveling artists.
Throughout the Festival’s history, there has been one key thread that has kept it alive – volunteers. The Festival has never had more than one fulltime employee. Literally a thousand students, teachers, performers, and community-minded citizens give their time and talents to make the Festival happen. Whitney epitomized this. For his twenty-six years as Executive Director from 1964 to 1990, he never received a penny in income – all his time was volunteered. In 1988, for his service the Charlotte Observer christened him “Mr. Festival.”
The Festival, which receives no government funding, is in part financially supported by charitable donations from “Friends of the Festival.” Since its founding, the Festival has had section 501(c)(3) charitable status under the Internal Revenue Code.
As it has every fall since 1964 (except 1992 when Freedom Park was closed for renovation), the Festival returns this September. Whitney’s Daughter is still involved in the Festival – Julie serves as the Executive Director.
Gene Payne, a former local cartoon editorialist, drew a scene with two ducks looking across the Freedom Park lake toward Festival-goers visiting artists tents, with the caption, “It must be some sort of migration each fall.”