Last Tuesday, we threw the third Rebel Art Fest. This time, at Potawatomi Park as part of Best. Week. Ever. It was a pretty major step up from setting up a tent in our parking lot and hoping no one needs to drive through the alley.
Around 3,000 people came through to enjoy local artists, musicians, and food trucks—and the blacklight jungle at the Conservatory.
It might seem like our little festival has finally hit the big time, but its heart is still the same.
Two years ago, when we first thought of putting on our own festival, we wanted to highlight all of the best local arts, music, and culture that South Bend—and especially our little neighborhood River Park—could offer. There were other art festivals in the area, but they either overlooked local talent, or had no bar for entry. They either showcased only a narrow idea of fine art, or they put elementary school dance teams on the same stage as local bands playing original music.
There was a huge middle ground that was getting no representation. Namely, the scores of amazing local artists whose work might be too unconventional or "low-brow" for a curated fine arts show, or bands whose sound isn't exactly radio friendly but still make fantastic music.
We saw tons of artists around us whose work was a bit weird, but wonderful—and worth celebrating.
And strangely enough, there seemed to be a huge concentration of those artists around River Park.
Which makes sense. River Park is a weird and wonderful little neighborhood. We don't have a Starbucks: we have The Well, a nonprofit coffeeshop that moonlights as a punk venue. Our river walk is littered with unauthorized artwork from our resident sculptor. We're home to Merriman's Play House and the Farmer's Market—amazing, important spaces with a decidedly non-mainstream appeal.
It's not everybody's cup of tea. And River Park isn't going to attract the same crowd as Downtown South Bend.
But we still think that weirdness is worth celebrating.
When we sat down to organize Rebel Art Fest, we wanted it to be a platform for the weird and wonderful artists specifically in our local community. Artists that might not ever be featured in a juried fine art show, but whose work deserves a larger audience.
Artists like La Grotesquerie, with her rogue taxidermy, Rhonda Whitledge, whose fantasy-based sculptures look like characters from the Dark Crystal universe, or the intimate, magical realism of Nerdy Brown Kid.
And then, there's the music. I lost track of how many times I was asked, "where are these guys from?" But I was absolutely delighted every time I told someone, "they're from here."
One of the unique things about Rebel Art Fest was that most of the bands lived within a mile of the venue. Whether it be the lucid post punk of Properties, the anarchic punk singalongs of SHAM, or the chamber pop chaos of The Flying DeSelms, it was all homegrown talent.
A decade ago, pulling off this kind of festival in South Bend would have been a struggle.
There were artists and musicians in town, but there wasn't much of a community between them. They were isolated, scraping to get their name out there without much of a support system. Many of them left for greener pastures.
But in the past few years, there has been a real renaissance in this city. Creatives aren't fleeing the Bend anymore. In fact, we've met artists who've actually moved here from larger cities because they like this community better.
When I moved back to South Bend nine years ago, there were maybe one or two local shows a week. Now, it seems like there are two or three per night. Most often, if I can't make it to a show for a friend's band, it's because I'm already going to another show that night.
Not to mention that Rebel Art Fest wasn't the only music festival last week.
The success of Rebel Art Fest isn't just indicative of a changing arts scene. It points to a changing city.
We had a lot of support for this year's festival from city government itself. Venues Parks and Arts did a lot of the legwork for marketing and promotion. The Potawatomi Conservatories didn't just let us turn it into a blacklight jungle: they gushed at the idea. They stayed open late so we could hang pool-noodle tentacles, origami butterflies, and paper-plate-and-cellophane jellyfish in the trees and strategically place blacklights around the greenhouse.
Not long ago, the powers that be might have raised an eyebrow at something like Rebel Art Fest. Asking the city to support a showcase of bizarre artists was pretty big leap. In many cities, the city would rather shut it down than support it.
But South Bend isn't like most cities. Especially after the last decade.
Rebel Art Fest served as a reflection of the growth in our creative community. And as the arts scene here has continued to grow and thrive, our strange little parking lot arts festival has grown with it.
And you better believe that next year will be even bigger.