An Occasion for the Arts celebrates 50th year

When An Occasion for the Arts first burst onto the scene in 1969, Richard Nixon was the newly elected president, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” commanded the cultural zeitgeist and the image of Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on the moon stood fresh in the nation’s collective conscious.

Now in its 50th year, Williamsburg’s premiere art show returns to Merchants Square Friday-Sunday.

“It feels humbling and thankful to think of what Williamsburg has done over all these years,” said Stuart Honenberger, president of the event’s executive committee. “I’m excited.”

In many ways, the show has changed considerably since its inception, now showcasing more than six times as many artists and spanning an entire weekend. But at its core, it remains consistent.

“It’s such a great weekend. The main thing is awareness,” Honenberger said.

AOFTA coordinates with the Greater Williamsburg Chamber & Tourism Alliance, the College of William and Mary and Colonial Williamsburg to get the word out to would-be visitors.It also capitalizes on a $20,000 marketing budget, a far cry from the sub-$1,000 allowance Honenberger worked with when he joined the organization eight years ago.

“We’ve come a long way,” he said. “It’s not just good for the organization. It’s good for the artists.”

Williamsburg Police estimated between 25,000 and 30,000 turned out for the event in 2017, although the open nature of the setup makes it difficult to pinpoint exact figures.

AOFTA executive director Leo Charette said this makes it the third biggest event of the year in the city, coming in behind Grand Illumination and the Fourth of July festivities in Colonial Williamsburg.

Honenberger hopes the event, which coincides with Columbus Day weekend, will draw out-of-town visitors. It also once again complements Saturday’s Williamsburg Book Festival, which celebrates the literary side of the arts.

The 2018 affair also sees the return of purchase awards that were discontinued in 2003; the prepaid gift cards serve as another way to promote the weekend and the artists.

Artists set up their tents in Merchants Square Friday. CultureFix’s “Kickoff pARTy” returns Friday evening to welcome the weekend with wine, craft beer, food from Old City BBQ and music from Jose Lorenzo and Timbasol La Original in the lot behind Blue Talon Bistro.

Attention turns to the artists Saturday and Sunday. They remain at the heart of the event, with 145 painters, photographers, jewelers, woodworkers and more from around the world featured this year.

“My focus has always been on the artists,” Charette said. “We have some really significant artists coming to the show this year.”

Visiting artists such as Israeli painter Yoram Gal and California-based jeweler Jean Havet will join local favorites, such as mixed-media artist and AOFTA co-founder Carlton Abbott at the event.

Williamsburg area artists comprise about 10 percent of the lineup. Charette cited local ceramic artist Russell Turnage’s “incredible” pottery as another example of what attendees can look forward to seeing.

“I’m really excited about what Williamsburg residents are going to see when they come to the show,” Charette said. “I would want people to realize that this is a pretty special thing that comes to the community.”

Kathleen Pickering, who handled the performing arts side of AOFTA in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, praised the event’s continued growth.

“I think it’s wonderful what they’ve done. I think it’s great the way it’s evolved,” she said. “It’s amazing that this happens in Williamsburg.”

Want to go?

An Occasion for the Arts runs Friday through Sunday.

The kickoff party runs 7-10 p.m. Friday in the lot behind Blue Talon Bistro, 420 Prince George St. Doors open 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $20, available at

The art show runs 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free. For more information, visit

AOFTA through the years

1969: The first Occasion for the Arts features 23 artists and draws 13,000 guests.

1976: The show incorporates a jury to award prize money.

1986: The show features 90 artists spanning seven stages on William and Mary’s campus.

1994: Guests enjoy hot air balloon rides in William and Mary’s Sunken Garden as part of AOFTA festivities.

2008: An ice sculptor carves a horse out of an ice block using a chainsaw.

2011: AOFTA transitions to a two-day format.

2016: AOFTA expands to three days.

Birkenmeyer can be reached by email at, by phone at 757-790-3029 or on Twitter @sethbirkenmeyer.

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