Since its inception nearly half a century ago, An Occasion for the Arts has evolved into the Williamsburg area’s premiere art show. But beyond its annual weekend celebrating art and culture, some may not realize the scope of the event, nor the breadth of talent it attracts as it continues to grow and evolve.
“It’s kind of the anchor event for the fall season,” said Bob Harris, the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance’s vice president of tourism and the Occasion’s media and community engagement coordinator.
“It takes a long time for events like that to establish the kind of reputation that Occasion for the Arts has.”
The nonprofit, volunteer-run event launched in 1969, when 13,000 attendees turned out to see the efforts of 23 artists. More recent years yielded crowds of 20,000-25,000, based on police estimates. As many as 30,000 are expected at next weekend’s iteration, which features 145 artists spanning 13 media. They’re expected to generate more $400,000 in sales, according to the Occasion’s president and production coordinator, Stuart Honenberger.
Planning for the annual event begins immediately following the previous year’s festivities.
“We start the day after the show,” Honenberger said. “That’s an all year affair.”
The application process begins in February and runs through April. Artists submit four high-quality images of their work, accompanied by another that shows off how they would showcase it at the event.
In June, a panel of five judges scores them on a seven-point scale; this year’s judges panel consisted of three fellow artists and two College of William and Mary faculty members. They awarded scores across different categories for different media; some, such as jewelry, are more competitive than others.
“It’s sort of like a college admissions process,” Honenberger said.
Executive Director Leo Charette curates the judge’s selections, looking at scores and envisioning how everything might fit together in action. He said he aims for 10-15 percent of the selections coming from local artists and for one-third of the show’s artists to be newcomers.
“It’s competitive,” said Charette, who joined the Occasion in 2015. “It definitely has a national reputation.”
With artists traveling from Colorado, California and even internationally this year, it’s indicative of the Occasion’s word of mouth within the artist community.
“Most of a show’s reputation is based on the experiences of previous artists,” Charette said.
A half-century of evolution
As the big weekend approaches, focus turns to what Mother Nature might have in store. It’s generally a cool, calm weekend, but in 2015, the Occasion was canceled for only the second time in its history due to Hurricane Joaquin.
The final push begins the Thursday evening prior to the event. At 10 p.m., the city closes off sections of North Boundary and Prince George streets, as well as neighboring parking lots, so the Occasion team can start assembling the main tents and erecting signs.
Artists arrive around mid-day Friday and begin setting up their designated spots at 1 p.m. They bring their own tents, setting up the walls and the displays of their work independently. It’s a hustle dealing with the infrastructure before the focus turns to enjoying the art.
The festival expanded to two days in 2011 and three days beginning last year.
“We’re trying to expand the weekend for both in-town and out-of-town folks,” Honenberger said.
Throughout its evolution, the Occasion added musical performances, culinary offerings, youth art showcases and more. This year features performances ranging from genre-spanning local band Joe’s Day Off to the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra, which plans to bring music from classic films such as “Harry Potter” and “Indiana Jones” to life at the Kimball Theatre.
This year features a new, more consolidated layout. In the past, the Occasion spanned one block of Duke of Gloucester Street and then extended down Boundary Street, but organizers found that not enough traffic moseyed down Boundary. Now, it will cover two blocks on Duke of Gloucester and one block on Boundary, with youth art on Prince George Street to give the next generation of creative minds their own space to shine.
“It’s a much tighter show,” Honenberger said. “It’s a little bit more walkable.”
As the Occasion continued to grow, the chamber also used it to spearhead its Williamsburg Fall Arts initiative. It’s an overarching effort to provide cultural events during a generally less-busy time of year, capitalizing on the cooler weather and quieter nature of the season.
“It’s another reason that puts people over the edge who are considering coming to Williamsburg,” Harris said. He added that he’s spoken with visitors who specifically plan their trips around the Occasion. “It just gives a nice combination of events that make people want to come visit our area.”
“The thing that I would want the community to realize is how special it is. There are a lot of art shows out there,” Charette said. “But this show is unique because of its draw. The community is going to see something that they normally wouldn’t see.”
Out of the ordinary
This year’s artists hail from 21 states; Canada and Israel are also represented.
“They’re coming in from all over,” he said.
California-based painter Liz Cummings is making her Occasion debut this year. She heard about the show from an artist and friend who also lives in the Golden State; he said he loved it. The positive word-of-mouth encouraged her to try her luck here.
“Every art show is somewhat similar. One of the things they can do, first of all, is enlighten the community to the local artists that they may not be aware of,” Cummings said. “Not everybody is in a gallery.”
She added that art shows are a great means of exposing a community to different ideas from different parts of the country.
“There are a lot of artists (who) will travel far and wide for shows,” she said. The 2017 Occasion marks her first time in Williamsburg. “One of the perks of being an artist and traveling is you do get out to see places.”
Although Cummings spends much of her time on the West Coast, she grew up in New York and maintains a home there. The art she’s displaying at the show is inspired by the East Coast, its harbors and waterways.
“This type of scenery is my first love,” she said. With her paintings, she said she focuses on lighting and reflections of water in an effort to create a sense of motion.
Not to be forgotten, locals are also represented.
“The beauty of the Occasion is the diversity of quality artists, and everybody that’s there is special for their own reasons,” said Ken Conger, a globe-trotting wildlife photographer based in Lenexa who has appeared at the past four Occasions and several others prior.
Conger specializes in wildlife photography, with an emphasis on capturing the animals in their natural habitat, looking at the camera or in the midst of doing something eye-catching. He’s snapped everything from lions and bears to otters and hummingbirds, all in hopes of fostering an emotional connection between the creatures and the humans seeking a more intimate look.
“I’m like the luckiest guy in the world to be able to see these,” he said.
Conger lauded the Occasion’s ability to draw attention to local galleries while also bringing in outside talent.
“We have a lot of unique, quality people that come to the festival,” he said. “It’s providing a more diverse perspective on other arts. These folks are very, very good at what they do.”
Conger does 12-15 art shows a year, but the Occasion manages to stand out among them.
“It’s the absolute best, well-organized art festival that I attend,” he said.
Want to go?
An Occasion for the Arts festivities run Oct. 6-8. The kickoff party will be held 6-10 p.m. Oct. 6. Events run from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Oct. 7 and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Oct. 8. General admission is free; some events require separate ticketing.
For a complete list of events, ticketing options and volunteer opportunities, visit aofta.org.
Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.