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50 years ago, Park City was a ghost town in the summer. Here's how the Kimball Arts Festival helped change that

Attendees at the Kimball Arts Festival. Visitors shop from local artists, listen to live music and sample gourmet food during the weekend festival. Rebekah Stevens
Attendees at the Kimball Arts Festival. With over 50,000 visitors, the festival supports local artists and businesses and brings funding to the Kimball Art Center. Rebekah Stevens
Attendees at the Kimball Arts Festival. With over 50,000 visitors, the festival supports local artists and businesses and brings funding to the Kimball Art Center. Rebekah Stevens
Attendees at the Kimball Arts Festival. Visitors shop from local artists, listen to live music and sample gourmet food during the weekend festival. Rebekah Stevens
As the Kimball Arts Festival celebrates its 50th year, an exhibition at the festival looks back on the early days of the festival, which started in 1969 with a group of local artists. Provided by Amy Roberts
As the Kimball Arts Festival celebrates its 50th year, an exhibition at the festival looks back on the early days of the festival, which started in 1969 with a group of local artists. Provided by Amy Roberts
As the Kimball Arts Festival celebrates its 50th year, an exhibition at the festival looks back on the early days of the festival, which started in 1969 with a group of local artists. Provided by Amy Roberts

PARK CITY — Fifty years ago, outside of the ski season, there wasn't much reason to go to Park City.

"Only a handful of businesses were open year-round and much of Main Street was boarded up (in the summer)," Amy Roberts, senior director of marketing and communications at the Kimball Art Center, told the Deseret News.

A group of local artists wanted to change that. In 1969, they started what was then called the Park City Arts Festival with the goal to showcase local artists as well as bring visitors to Park City during the summer.

"Park City has long been a bit of a chameleon, changing as needed to survive," Roberts said.

Attendees at the Kimball Arts Festival. With over 50,000 visitors, the festival supports local artists and businesses and brings funding to the Kimball Art Center.

Rebekah Stevens

Attendees at the Kimball Arts Festival. With over 50,000 visitors, the festival supports local artists and businesses and brings funding to the Kimball Art Center.

By 1976, the festival had grown so much the original group of volunteer artists could no longer organize it on their own. They turned to Bill Kimball, who had recently turned a garage on Main Street into the nonprofit Kimball Art Center. With Kimball's help, they formed a volunteer committee that ran the arts festival until 1979, when it had again outgrown its organizers.

"Kimball and the committee decided that really was a bigger job than a couple of volunteers for a couple of weeks (could handle), and they decided to hire a director for the festival," Tina Lewis told the Deseret News in a recent phone interview.

Lewis, a member of the original volunteer committee, was hired as the first paid festival planner for the 10th anniversary of the festival. She took over as the director in January 1979.

"For the 10th anniversary, I decided we needed to do some special things," Lewis said. "That was the first year that we had an auction. … We asked every artist to give us a piece of artwork and that became the core of the auction items." This auction, a fundraiser for the Kimball Art Center, has changed over the years, but still exists today as the Art Starts Here Gala, which takes place the day before the festival.

The festival today

Now called the Park City Kimball Arts Festival, the event is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

"In a town where people, businesses, resort owners and events come and go, a 50th anniversary is nothing short of monumental," Roberts said.

"The early days of the Park City Arts Festival was also the heyday of arts festivals throughout the country," Lewis said. "Many of those festivals throughout the country no longer exist, but the Park City festival has been a strong, national festival since its start and has attracted artists from all over the country."

This year, the festival features 13 different categories of visual art — including ceramics, painting, sculpture and metalwork — from 220 artists selected by a jury from over 1,000 applications.

Attendees at the Kimball Arts Festival. Visitors shop from local artists, listen to live music and sample gourmet food during the weekend festival.

Rebekah Stevens

Attendees at the Kimball Arts Festival. Visitors shop from local artists, listen to live music and sample gourmet food during the weekend festival.

The juror-selected artwork is a staple of the festival, but there are also plenty of new events to celebrate the 50th anniversary, including interactive activities like helmet decorating that explores the intersection between art and health, a brunch with the Best in Show artists from last year's festival and a new VIP lounge.

In addition, the festival boasts the popular "Studio on Main," where attendees can dabble in painting and pottery with artist instruction as well as the Kids' Art Area and lots of live music.

"I really enjoy that lightbulb moment when attendees are immersed in the creative process, engaged with an artist or otherwise draw the conclusion that art is so much more than a final pretty product you hang on a wall," Roberts said.

The arts festival and the community

The Kimball Arts Festival is not a small gathering with minimal impact, either. Last year, nearly 50,000 people attended, and between their food, lodging and transportation needs, festival purchases and other expenses, the visitors left an economic impact of over $23 million.

Where does all that money go? For the most part, it remains in the community — supporting hotels and restaurants and artists — but perhaps the most important impact of the money the festival brings to Park City is what it means for the Kimball Art Center.

"The money we raise from this event supports art education in public schools, free year-round exhibitions and inspirational community events," Roberts said. And for Roberts, as hectic as the festival is, the support it raises for art education is the best part.

“Being part of something bigger than myself is both awesome and daunting, … (but) for me, it’s part of the payoff.”

"Being part of something bigger than myself is both awesome and daunting, … (but) for me, it's part of the payoff," Roberts said.

"(The festival) requires enormous planning for logistics. When you have thousands and thousands of people coming to this tiny little town, it's a logistical nightmare," Lewis said. "(But) I think the whole crowd realizes that this is a great enrichment. It enriches life in Park City and for our children."

The Kimball Art Center is free to the public and hosts exhibitions year-round. In addition to gallery shows, it also provides art classes in painting, ceramics, glass work and drawing, as well as partners with the Park City Education Foundation to provide programs in the visual arts for local students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Art education can help students explore new skills and build confidence. "Art is … about a young person finding a sense of connection (and) being able to express him or herself," Roberts said.

Some people argue that art education isn't necessary in today's STEM-focused world, but Roberts, her colleagues and the 50,000 yearly festival attendees see it differently.

"Arts allows us to put the spotlight on our imaginations instead of our limitations, and it helps us embrace what connects us rather than what divides us," Roberts said. "Art is a safe place to welcome new ideas."

If you go …

What: The Kimball Arts Festival

When: Aug. 2-4

Where: Main Street, Park City

How much: $12 for adults in advance, $15 for adults day-of, $6 for kids ages 6-17

Web: parkcitykimballartsfestival.org