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    Art City In sixth year, RiverArtsFest attendees ‘get it’

    Erinn Figg - The Daily News -

    Artists Colleen Couch-Smith and Kelly Lindsey of Memphis are the creative minds behind Rock Paper Scissors (indielamps.com), offering lamps distinctive enough to double as illuminated art.
    At the moment, they primarily sell their work at local arts festivals, and there’s one in particular where they truly feel at home.

    “I feel like the people who attend RiverArtsFest really get it,” Couch-Smith said. “They know that if they go to that festival, they’re going to find unique, handmade things that have quality and meaning.”

    Now in its sixth year, RiverArtsFest 2012 begins at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26, and runs through 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28, in the South Main Historic Arts District. Couch-Smith and Lindsey will be among the more than 170 juried artists in this year’s expanded Artist Market, which, if history is any indication, should attract tens of thousands of art enthusiasts.

    “It’s gotten bigger every year. We have attendee estimates as high as 85,000,” said Carol Watkins, one of the festival’s founders and a member of its 2012 board of directors. “It’s very rewarding to put on a festival so the whole city can enjoy the arts.”

    This year’s festival also will include three music stages as well as a variety of street performers coordinated by the Memphis Music Foundation. Artist in Motion stations will feature demonstrations of different art mediums. And children of all ages can express themselves through interactive projects at the Hands On Art attraction, presented by ArtsMemphis, which also sponsors the related Art in the Making program, enabling 10 RiverArtsFest artists to teach master classes in 10 area schools for the fifth consecutive year.

    “The whole purpose of RiverArtsFest is to allow people to get up close and personal with the fine arts,” Watkins said. “We try to give them many ways to do that.”

    RiverArtsFest originated in 2007 as a way to keep the spirit of the former Arts in the Park festival alive.

    “After Arts in the Park closed, some of us wondered if we could pull off a festival in the street,” Watkins said. “We called all the past chairmen and volunteers from Arts in the Park to a big meeting – every one of them came. It was really exciting.”

    The festival’s steering committee is comprised of many of those Arts in the Park volunteers as well as members of the South Main Association. It also operates under Experience Art in Memphis (formerly Memphis Arts Festival), the 501(c)3 that governed Arts in the Park. All proceeds go back into growing the festival and cultivating the arts community in Memphis.

    That first RiverArtsFest attracted about 40,000 patrons. Since then, it’s gotten bigger and better every year, Watkins said.

    “Every year we do something different. This year we decided to create a food court at South Main and Webster Avenue.”
    Tsunami restaurant owner Ben Smith will manage the food court, and Watkins says grouping the food trucks and vendors in one place should help ease foot traffic congestion throughout the Artist Market.

    This year, RiverArtsFest also is illuminating all the artists’ booths for a Friday night Artist Market planned exclusively for the South Main Art Trolley Tour, the monthly event that sees the district’s restaurants, galleries and boutiques open from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

    Also new for RiverArtsFest 2012: a $5 admission fee for patrons 12 and older. However, attendees on a tight budget can enjoy free admission Friday evening and 10 a.m. to noon Sunday.

    “Our sponsorships have dwindled because of the economy,” Watkins said. “A nominal fee will give us just enough money to keep RiverArtsFest going.”

    Festival organizers rely on sponsorships to cover costs such as tent rentals, electrical equipment, supplies, necessary software and many other logistics-oriented costs.

    Sarah Worden, owner of Charlotte Fine Jewelry on South Main Street, isn’t concerned that the admission fee might hinder weekend customers who just want to shop without attending the festival. She and several other businesses plan to offer some type of promotion for RiverArtsFest customers.

    If anything, Worton believes the festival will give her store a boost this weekend.

    “If RiverArtsFest is going to bring in up to 80,000 people, even if I get 1 percent of those people to come through my door in two days, that’s better traffic than I have during some months,” she said. “That’s when it becomes my role as a business owner to maximize that opportunity.”

    The Downtown Memphis Commission estimates the festival’s economic impact to be more than $5 million, according to festival co-director Bonnie Thornton.

    Complete festival dates and hours are 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, including a festival map, directions and parking information, visit the festival’s new website at riverartsmemphis.org.