August will introduce at least one festival that transforms Cambridge into Art City

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Amyko Ishizaki, right, talks scheduling with others from the Art City festival team at the offices of the Cambridge Arts Council. (Photo: Emily Falcigno)
Amyko Ishizaki, right, talks scheduling with others from the Art City festival team at the offices of the Cambridge Arts Council. (Photo: Emily Falcigno)

At least one giant new arts festival is on the way to Cambridge.

The citizen-run Art City organization hopes to turn the entire month of August into a chance for people to stumble across arts of all sorts citywide, but co-founder Amyko Ishizaki said it will start this year with a series of weekends for specific fields, with one each for music, film, dance, visual arts and performance art and technology.

A festival proposed in April by city councillor Dennis Benzan would take over Central Square to showcase arts with a unique tie to the city as an urban center and melting pot, such as breakdancing, hip-hop and street art, jazz, salsa, samba and world dance – in part a callback to the three-day Latin Festivals that took over Columbia Park annually for several years starting in 1985.

“What we’re talking about is enhancing and adding to what we already have,” Benzan said, citing River Fest and other annual events including Oktoberfest, MayFair and the City Hall Dance Party to a late-May gathering of the Neighborhood and Long Term Planning, Public Facilities, Arts and Celebration Committee.

Ultimately he said he would work on merging his idea with plans for Art City August: Weekends and Pop-Ups, perhaps having his proposed festival as the culminating party for the broader event.

Logistics and funding

The May 22 meeting, led by councillor Nadeem Mazen, brought talks about funding and vows from officials including Assistant City Manager Lisa Peterson to look at how the city could streamline permitting and help get arts projects onto city streets.

Mazen said he would talk to the City Manager’s Office about putting together a complete but easy-to-use packet for putting together arts events, “empowering citizens and volunteers and organizations for taking on the mantel [and] either absorbing fundraising costs or putting on something low-cost or no-cost.”

“We have to make the barriers to entry lower,” Mazen said.

Logistics is one way the city can help, Peterson said, since its obligations in other areas prevents full financial support of independent arts events. The River Fest, which took place last weekend, cost about $85,000, of which the city contributed only about $35,000.

Cambridge Arts Council Executive Director Jason Weeks said he’d seen municipal grant money halved to about $50,000 from when he arrived in town decades ago, a drop in the bucket compared with the roughly quarter-million dollars requested annually in more than 100 artist applications the council gets. That made the city’s non-financial help all the more important, and Weeks praised the city for having “an administration that cares about the arts”:

We’re not a city that just hope that it happens. We put out policy orders, we put out ordinances, we structure this city in a way that lets the community know we’re open for business when it comes to arts and culture, and that we care deeply about that as part of the fabric of how we do business in the city. I couldn’t be more grateful. Is there more we can do? Of course. But the fact that we have an administration that has such a can-do attitude that figures out how we can support the ideas that percolate up is an amazing beginning. The thing I’m most excited about tonight is that we’re even having this conversation.

Making Art City happen

Art City organizers have been meeting almost daily to make the August event happen, with community meetings taking place monthly.

“We’re working out logistics as we go. We’re a completely grassroots organization, just volunteers, just people who love the arts,” Ishizaki said. “Basically anyone I meet who wants to be involved is instantly in Art City.”

In the long term she hopes Art City will not just take over Cambridge for August, but become a concept that can be exported to any city. Ideally, an Art City website will become a master event calendar for Cambridge and a way to connect audiences with artists, she said. As an often unpaid dancer and supporter of other arts, she also wants to find ways to pay people who participate.

“We’re trying to do this as cheaply for the public as possible while still paying for permits and being able to cover infrastructure … any money made from the festival and events will go straight to the artists,” she said. “Even though we don’t have enough money and doing things pro bono is usually the way to go, we believe art deserves to earn money. And it would be great to talk more about art funding, because the city and corporations is really the only way way that artists can make large amounts of money.”

Robin Lapidus, executive director of the Central Square Business Association, encouraged all festival organizers to be more open to sponsorships – a standard option for funding in other countries.

Creative and possibly unique

In the meantime, Ishizaki and other founders and organizers of Art City had been thinking of creative and possibly unique ways to pay the artists taking part in their weekend events, including putting up a graffiti wall with a canvas made of T-shirts, then taking the finished wall apart and selling the T-shirts bearing small parts of the overall composition. The proceeds would go to the graffiti artists.

Some of Art City’s other plans, which complement more standard arts with a cappella, acrobatics, crafts, light shows, roaming theater performances and technology from Artisan’s Asylum and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab:

bullet-gray-smallMazen’s campaign bus is being retrofit to serve as a portable cinema.

bullet-gray-smallTheater troupes would be challenged to create and perform an entire play in 24 hours.

bullet-gray-smallThe music weekend is intended to include a full day of classical music from the startup GroupMuse, which puts on casual-dress classical performances at house parties.

bullet-gray-smallSculptors would produce works of art while people watch.

A signup sheet for artists, volunteers, sponsors and other participants is here.

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