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Forty years ago, volunteers pulled off the first Iowa Arts Festival. Summer in Iowa City has never been the same



Courtesy of Summer of the Arts

What started 40 years ago as a volunteer-led labor of love is now a downtown Iowa City institution: the Iowa Arts Festival. Back in the summer of 1983, Joyce Carroll and Kristin Summerwill helped organize a multi-day event on the Ped Mall that brought together artisans, visual artists, poets, local musicians such as Greg Brown and Dave Moore, and a variety of performers (jugglers! puppeteers! dancers!) — all under the banner of ArtsFest ’83.

“Kristin Summerwill was truly the genius and inspiration behind the development of ArtsFest,” Carroll told me. “I agreed to co-chair, and we were off and running. It was a lot of hard work, but it was also some of the best fun I have ever had. After the first year, I believe everyone involved agreed that we wanted to keep and grow the event. We added several interested leaders to the group and began adding events to the festival.”

Left: An advertisement for the first Iowa Arts Festival in 1983. Right: The cover of the 1998 Iowa Arts Festival program — courtesy of Summer of the Arts

There had been previous attempts to launch an arts festival in Iowa City that never quite stuck, including the first big downtown gathering that occured in the fall of 1979. It coincided with the completion of the Pedestrian Mall, which was a cornerstone of an urban renewal project that transformed the town by the end of the ’70s, so the local government wanted to show it off.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen previewed an eclectic array of events that ranged from a Youth Arts Fest and Polish folk music to a trippy multimedia film and electronic music performance during the evening, which must have warped minds in this new public space. That year, Iowa City resident Marcy Rosenbaum was a student enrolled in the Community Experimental Education Center (CEEC, an alternative school within the Iowa City Community School District that was associated with United Action for Youth).

As part of her senior project, Rosenbaum helped organize a one-day Youth Arts Fest as part of the weeklong series of Ped Mall events. Fellow CEEC student Lorene Hunter demonstrated weaving techniques on a loom set up outside and gave observers a chance to participate. Young artists showed off recent paintings and ceramics projects, while others set up a face-painting station.

There was also plenty of music. Rosenbaum recalled organizing a full day of shows featuring young local musicians such as herself, along with a choreographed dance set to Cat Stevens’ “Sad Lisa.”

Unfortunately, the momentum stalled after 1979 and the town was left without a festival for the first three years of the ’80s, until Joyce Carroll and Kristin Summerwill began planning ArtsFest ’83.

One person who took in the many musical and cultural opportunities that downtown Iowa City had to offer was a young teenager named Dave Zollo, who would go on to play numerous gigs at the Iowa Arts Festival over the years, as well as downtown for the Friday Night Concert Series.

“I would go to Arts Fest and other university-sponsored concerts with my dad,” Zollo recalled. “He knew several musicians in the area, so was usually aware of what was happening where. It was really a great time to be a kid in Iowa City — not that it isn’t that way now—as far as being able to find a lot of things to do. In hindsight, it was really a great atmosphere out of which to become a working artist.

“I feel wholly a product of the time and place where I grew up,” he continued. “I can’t overstate the importance of getting up on that big stage, with professional production, and performing for the people about whom you care. Also, when I was starting to perform professionally, or semi-professionally, there wasn’t a mid-sized room in Iowa City, so any opportunity you could get that allowed you to play for an audience larger than, say, a couple hundred people, was really illustrative: is this something I can do for a living?”

For Zollo, the answer was an emphatic yes, and he never looked back. Over the years, Summer of the Arts — the organization that now oversees the Iowa Arts Festival and the Friday Night Concert Series, among other annual programs — has played a key role in nurturing new generations of local and regional artists. In the early days, much of this cultivation work was done by community members who were deeply invested in making Iowa City a great place for artists, musicians and other creative types to live.

“You see, ‘back then,’ we weren’t paid to organize the festival,” Carroll told me. “We all volunteered incredible amounts of time to make this become an Iowa City staple. It was wonderful to be a part of the beginning where the energy and the enthusiasm was contagious. To have been in on the beginning of something so grand and successful makes me feel like I contributed something important to Iowa City. The hard work and hours we all put into ArtsFest were more than worth it. And, well, I feel nostalgic. Every year in June, I am reminded of a time when we all came together with a common goal, with limited resources and still made it happen. And it makes me wonder, ‘What’s next, Iowa City?’”

The 2021 Iowa City Jazz Festival presented by the Summer of the Arts. Jason Smith/Little Village
The 2021 Iowa City Jazz Festival presented by the Summer of the Arts. –Jason Smith/Little Village

Summer of the Arts 2023

Friday Night Concert Series: Iowa Steel Band
6:30 p.m., May 12 at the Ped Mall Stage

Friday Night Concert Series: Liberty, City and West High School Jazz Ensembles
6:30 p.m., May 19 at the Ped Mall Stage

Free Movie Series: Top Gun Maverick
9 p.m., May 20 at Brown Deer Golf Course

Friday Night Concert Series: Savage Hearts with Liberty High MC’s and Free Strings
6:30 p.m., May 26 at the Ped Mall Stage

Northside Concert Series: Uniphonics
6:30 p.m., May 27, Northside Market Place

IOWA ARTS FEST
June 2-4 in Downtown Iowa City

Music on the Move: Kevin Burt
6:30 p.m., June 6 at James Alan McPherson Park

Friday Night Concert Series: BYOBrass
6:30 p.m., June 9 at the Ped Mall Stage

Free Movie Series, Minions: The Rise of Gru
9 p.m., June 10 at S.T. Morrison Park

Music on the Move: Blake Shaw
6:30 p.m., June 13 at Lower City Park

Friday Night Concert Series: Juneteenth Celebration
6:30 p.m., June 16 at the Ped Mall Stage

Free Movie Series: Strange World
9 p.m., June 17 at James Alan McPherson Park

Music on the Move: Miss Christine
6:30 p.m., June 20 at Old Town Park

Miss Christine, an Iowa City-based indie musician, plays at the 51st Pride festival, June 2022. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Friday Night Concert Series: Kid Logic
6:30 p.m., June 23 at the Ped Mall Stage

Northside Concert Series: Marc Janssen & the Locals
6:30 p.m., June 24 at Northside Market Place

Music on the Move: Dave Zollo
6:30 p.m., June 27 at Fairmeadows Park

IOWA CITY JAZZ FESTIVAL
June 30-July 2 in Downtown Iowa City

Friday Night Concert Series: Crystal City and Subatlantic
6:30 p.m., July 7 at the Ped Mall Stage

Free Movie Series: Uncharted
9:15 p.m., July 8 at City Park, Hills, Iowa

Music on the Move: Kevin Burt
6:30 p.m., July 11 at Mercer Park

Friday Night Concert Series: Avey Grouws Band
6:30 p.m., July 14 at the Ped Mall Stage

Music on the Move: Annie Savage and Friends
6:30 p.m., July 18 at North Market Square Park

Friday Night Concert Series: Ryan Jeter’s Mind @ Large
6:30 p.m., July 21 at the Ped Mall Stage

Free Movie Series: Sonic the Hedgehog 2
9 p.m., July 22 at Mercer Park

Music on the Move: Blake Shaw
6:30 p.m., July 25 at Willow Creek Park

Friday Night Concert Series: Winterland
6:30 p.m., July 28 at the Ped Mall Stage

Northside Concert Series: Slim Chance & the Can’t Hardly Play Boys
6:30 p.m., July 29 at Northside Market Place

Music on the Move: James Tutson
6:30 p.m., Aug. 1 at Wetherby Park

Friday Night Concert Series: The Beaker Brothers
6:30 p.m., Aug. 4 at the Ped Mall Stage

Free Movie Series: The Lost City
8:45 p.m., Aug. 5 at Iowa City Municipal Airport

Music on the Move: Dave Zollo
6:30 p.m., Aug. 8 at Terry Trueblood Recreation Area

Friday Night Concert Series: Sophie Mitchell and Jordan Sellergren
6:30 p.m., Aug. 11 at the Ped Mall Stage

Free Movie Series: Encanto
8:30 p.m., Aug. 12 at Pepperwood Plaza

Music on the Move: Miss Christine
6:30 p.m., Aug. 15 outside Macbride Hall

Friday Night Concert Series: Funkatude and Jumbies
6:30 p.m., Aug. 18 at the Ped Mall Stage

Music on the Move: Annie Savage and Friends
6:30 p.m., Aug. 22 at Upper City Park

Friday Night Concert Series: The Recliners
6:30 p.m., Aug. 25 at the Ped Mall Stage

Northside Concert Series: Natty Nation
6:30 p.m., Aug. 26 at Northside Market Place

Music on the Move: James Tutson
6:30 p.m., Aug. 29 at Cardigan Park

Singer-songwriter James Tutson played solo but still managed to fill the Hoyt Sherman gallery with his soul/R&B sound for GDP Fest. Saturday, April 15, 2023. — Tyler Erickson/Little Village

Friday Night Concert Series: Brad & the Big Wave and Saint Silver
6:30 p.m., Sept. 1 at the Ped Mall Stage

Friday Night Concert Series: Lou Sherry and Worst Impressions and Dolliver
6:30 p.m., Sept. 8 at the Ped Mall Stage

Friday Night Concert Series: The Zeffsterr and Ivy Ford Band
6:30 p.m., Sept. 15 at the Ped Mall Stage

Friday Night Concert Series: SFP Presents: Local Anesthetic with Ahzia, Ion Alexakis, Jim Swim and Alyx Rush
6:30 p.m., Sept. 22 at the Ped Mall Stage

Free Movie Series: Casper
7:30 p.m., Sept. 23 at Johnson County Fairgrounds

Northside Concert Series: We Funk
6:30 p.m., Sept. 30 at Northside Market Place

HOLIDAY THIEVES MARKET
Dec. 9-10 at the Hyatt Regency in Coralville

Kembrew McLeod can be seen during the Iowa Arts Festival inhaling funnel cakes until his arteries congeal. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 318.