Celebrating its 33rd year, the annual North Charleston Arts Festival will spring into action this week with an impressive variety of events and performances.
The festival officially kicks off Friday and runs through May 9.
“This event started off as a half-day of activities in Park Circle, but it has expanded into something very special,” says Ann Simmons, the arts coordinator for the North Charleston Cultural Arts Department, which produces the festival each year.
A native of Summerville with a degree from the College of Charleston in arts management, Simmons has been working with the department since 2008.
“Even though we have programs going on all year, (the arts festival is) one of main programs that we actually have an advertising budget for,” she says. “It’s the biggest public outreach thing that we do.”
Over the last three decades, the North Charleston Arts Festival has evolved from a small neighborhood get-together into one of the state’s biggest annual celebrations of arts and culture.
The festival was a low-key affair in the late 1980s and early ’90s, but it eventually became well established and celebrated in the region and beyond. Simmons said the event expanded as the city’s venue options grew, particularly with the additions of the North Charleston Performing Arts Center and Charleston Area Convention Center.
“The city has been able to utilize these venues to showcase much of what’s happening artistically and culturally in the community,” Simmons said.
In 2000, the festival received a Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award for the arts and won praise from the National Endowment for the Arts, South Carolina Arts Commission, and the corporate community. These days, the schedule and attendance proudly reflects the growth of North Charleston as a city and the diversity of its community.
The North Charleston Arts Festival tends to balance large-scale presentations and big-stage performances with a healthy array of children’s events, many of which stem from school programs. There are also plenty of formal and casual events for young adults, families and senior citizens. The main goal for the festival is to provide and promote high quality art of all forms in an accessible and affordable manner. Many of the events are free or low cost.
“We’re trying to make high-quality art experiences available to everyone in the city, so offering something in every corner on the city is very important,” Simmons says. “Initially, this festival was aimed at people living in the area, but now that it’s well established, it’s becoming a destination event for tourists and people in the whole region.”
The North Charleston Arts Festival’s kick-off weekend centers around the free two-day “Main Event,” set for Saturday and Sunday with food trucks, visual art, roaming performers, kids courtyards and live music on several stages inside and outdoors.
“The Main Event takes over the entire Performing Arts Center and Convention Center complex,” says Simmons. “It’s a festival within a festival.”
Day one of the Main Event runs from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday with a variety of school-sponsored bands, community performing groups, and dance troupes on the North Charleston Performing Arts Center’s Auditorium Stage.
The PAC’s Lobby Stage will host the Cultural Heritage events with an array of international styles of dance, music and folk art. Situated just outside the PAC entrance, the Courtyard Stage will feature a mix of rock, soul, blues, Americana and reggae acts throughout the day.
Inside the Convention Center, the Exhibit Hall Stage will host the Youth Entertainment events, which will include musical theater, storytelling, dance and magic shows, among other festive entertainment.
Day two runs from 2-5 p.m. Sunday. There’ll be a formal lineup of community bands, ballet and dance troupes at the Performing Arts Center Stage along with an exotic bill of performers at the PAC Lobby Stage, funky and twangy bands at the Courtyard Stage, and family-friendly entertainment at the Exhibit Hall Stage.
Additional features during the Main Event include judged fine art and photography exhibits, fine craft exhibits, youth art and photography, gem and mineral shows and sale, and an antiques and collectibles show.
Art walk events are set for 5 p.m. Wednesday along East Montague Avenue in Park Circle. Designed as a casual, neighborhood art stroll, local and visiting artists will display their wares on the sidewalks along several blocks.
“The Art Walk is one of my favorite family-friendly events,” says Simmons. “On the Charleston peninsula, there are plenty of art galleries to check out while enjoying cool beverages and all that, but there aren’t very many at all in North Charleston where we can do that. The pop-up art galleries in Olde Village area are comprised of temporary art galleries and other activities along the street. It’s a nice way to feature the restaurants and businesses while showcasing local and visiting artists.”
Some of the most skillful and versatile jazz musicians in the Lowcountry will be on hand for concerts at various venues during the art fest.
The Charleston Latin Jazz Collective will perform a dynamic set from 7-9 p.m. Saturday at Quarters K, 1045 Everglades Ave., at Riverfront Park. Billed as “Latin Night,” an ensemble will handle a feisty mix of Brazilian, Afro-Cuban and jazzy Latin styles. Tickets are $35-$40, call 740-5854 to reserve.
Later in the week, the Jazz Artists of Charleston (JAC) will present the JAC Jazz Series: North Charleston Edition. The three-day live jazz series will be at 8 p.m. May 6-8. The series will take place at the North Charleston and American LaFrance Fire Museum and Educational Center, 4975 Centre Pointe Drive.
The JAC has organized special shows like these as part of the North Charleston Arts Festival since 2013. This year, they plan to rework the museum space into a cozy “cabaret-style seated jazz club” with some of the top local jazz musicians on stage. Steve Berry and the Jazz Factory are set to perform May 6, sax-fronted Mark Sterbank Ensemble will play May 7, and Leah Suarez and Gerald Gregory will deliver a vocal/piano duo May 8. Tickets are $10 for each show and available at the door or at jazzartistsofcharleston.org.
“A big component of the North Charleston Arts Festival is offering support for various local arts organizations,” says Simmons. “So many tend to be centered around the downtown Charleston area, so we love to bring them up to North Charleston during the fest.”