The New Art Festival: bringing you art for a generation

By Bhat Boy

Much like the Great Glebe Garage Sale, the New Art Festival (TNAF) has become a Glebe institution over the past generation. Both are cultural phenomena, largely invented in the Glebe.

Culture is an industry that is alive and well under our very noses. It goes on in basements, attics and spare bedrooms all over the Glebe with virtually no government subsidies, showing no signs of being exported to China.

The 1993 poster.
The 1993 poster.
In 1993, the first year of the festival, we all set up in a circle under the big silver maple in Central Park on a hot Saturday in June and someone brought a didgeridoo. The secret to the festival’s success is that it is really for the artists. It is as though the public caught on that they could sneak in and buy art, sometimes dressing like artists so as to not look suspicious. For one weekend in June every year, the festival grew out of the mud like a medieval city. Before we knew it, the festival was out of control: we had to jury applications; create parking control; and stop wayward artists from setting up on the sidewalks.

One would think that an outdoor arts festival would be weather dependent, but according to Chandler Swain, our fearless leader, there are hundreds of umbrella-bearing patrons “in the greenroom,” waiting for the rain to start so all the sun-soaking riff raff will clear out of the park. These plastic-cloaked, hardy art purchasers emerge from their houses the moment the clouds release their droplets and descend the steps of the park, even as the faint of heart flee for the safety of the coffee shop. Swain, owner of an Almonte gallery and general store and maverick of the Ottawa art scene, has been running TNAF for the past 10 years.

The New Art Festival
Saturday and Sunday, 
June 20 and 21
10 a.m. – 5 p.m., rain or shine
Central Park at Bank and Clemow
Free admission!

Our government would have us think that “Art” is for the elite, something that should be put on a pedestal. Modern art will go nowhere if everyone insists on supporting dead artists. Forget the gallery, go for a walk in the park, support the arts industry by buying art from an artist who is breathing, an artist who might just create something next week thinking about the conversation they had with you in the grass. Bring the kids, bring the dog, run around, don’t be afraid to touch things, pretend it’s not the gallery, because it’s not. These are real artists in the real world, to whom you can talk, not just read about on plaques. And it’s not just for grown-ups, because kids can learn about art too.

The 1999 poster.
The 1999 poster.
Arts and crafts, like other cultural ideas, have to be passed on from generation to generation. The festival is not just about products sold, but is also about lives changed. Meaghan Haughian, who grew up in Old Ottawa South, produces some of Ottawa’s edgiest art. When I asked her how TNAF affected her when she was growing up, she told me, “I started participating in 1999 in my last year at Canterbury. As a high school student, I didn’t know anything about marketing my work or the practical business side of being an artist. TNAF allowed me to try new things in an easy-going atmosphere. It was the perfect place for me to get my feet wet without the pressures and responsibilities that come with exhibiting in a gallery and helped me build my community. I continue to have close friends that I met at the festival. I still have fans who come to my shows and collect my work – I never would have met them if it weren’t for TNAF. It’s the people and the energy that bring me back. So many artists participate year after year – it’s exciting to see them again and to see how their art has changed.”

These words sound all too familiar to me; the foundations of my own successful art career are built on relationships and lessons that I learnt from our festival in Central Park. That’s the thing – it is our festival. The success of TNAF is the product of a neighbourhood that believes in the arts and culture industry.

Bhat Boy is a notable Glebe artist whose works grace a number of local buildings, and who was one of the founding artists who initiated Art in the Park, now called The New Art Festival.

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