The Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts is commemorating its 12th anniversary this year, an anniversary marking more than a decade of celebrating the art, culture and community of Elmwood Avenue and its residents and businesses. But this year also marks a somber first for the festival -- it's the first year without Michael Meldrum, master of ceremonies for the Kidsfest performance tent since the festival's inception. Meldrum, a staple on the Buffalo music scene for more than three decades until his death in May, hosted the city's longest-running open mic night and organized annual tribute nights for Bob Dylan and John Lennon, all in Nietzsche's. He also was known as a champion of up-and-coming singers and songwriters, such as the most famous of his proteges, Ani DiFranco.
The Elmwood festival is dedicated to Meldrum this year, a distinction manifesting in many ways. Kidsfest and its parade are in his honor, and his wife, Diane, and children Alexander and Julia will be taking his place at the Kidsfest stage. Alexander also is performing in the New Band Showcase on Saturday.
"We're just keeping on the spirit of community that Michael was so much about," said Joe DiPasquale, the festival chairman. "That's why he loved this festival and volunteered to be part of it from Day One. That's what it's all about: the community."
That focus on community appears again and again through the event, which is held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday on Elmwood Avenue between West Ferry and Lafayette streets. For example, of the more than 170 featured artists at the festival, 70 percent are regional and 88 percent are from New York State. Of the remaining 12 percent, many originally lived in Buffalo, live here part of the year or have personal connections to the area, said DiPasquale.
"We just feel like with so much going on with our festival, we don't need to brag that we have 20 different states [represented]," he said. "Western New York has incredible creative talent. It's amazing what we have here."
But this isn't an art festival, it's an arts festival. There is everything from paintings to sculptures and metalwork on display, of course -- 16 mediums in all, for sale from very cheap to very not -- but there are also four stages featuring mostly local singers, musicians and dancers, along with puppeteers and storytellers on the Kidsfest stage. The Cultural and Environmental rows provide a place for local organizations to spread their messages and tell their stories.
Festival volunteer and Elmwood Village/Delaware district resident Kristin Meyer said the locality and welcoming atmosphere of the festival helps Buffalo shine as an arts destination.
"I think that Buffalo gets really short-changed. We've done a lot of good things, like this Elmwood Arts Festival, that brings the community together and really represents what we're all about," she said. "Everybody thinks you have to go to New York City to make it big ... but why not start it here? Why not let it happen here first?"
The festival organizers aim for diversity in more ways than just art forms, such as age and socioeconomic status.
"We try to do it in a way that it's tasteful, where it's family oriented and grandparents can come with their grandchildren," DiPasquale said. "People from every walk of life in Western New York can come there and spend $1,000 on art, or they can come with a picnic and watch performances all day and find out information about groups in the area, and they don't have to spend a penny."
Kidsfest plays a unique role in the festival. As DiPasquale said, "it's no macaroni on a plate." With the performance stage, a parade and five different tents offering a variety of hands-on art projects and staffed in large part by area schools, Kidsfest offers the young and the young at heart a place to explore their creativity.
"The whole premise that they wanted for the Kidsfest is to have it where it's a learning experience, a teaching experience," said Ellie Byrnes, a six-year volunteer in the Kidsfest area who just received her art education teaching certification from Buffalo State College. "They want to be able to teach about culture, environment, different things like that."
Kidsfest volunteer coordinator and Elmwood Village resident Maureen Chapman, who, before becoming a volunteer, was a longtime festival visitor with her two kids, said Kidsfest outshines other local festivals' offerings for children and makes the festival experience much richer for both children and their families.
"It's a really great, fun place for your kids to come appreciate art," she said. "The crafts are usually just so much more interesting for the children, and so much more engaging. They always have a theme and usually it's very natural -- it usually has to do with nature or imagination, which really appeals to children. And the theme always carries through with all the activities."
This year's Kidsfest theme is patience, represented by a snail. Kids can make their own paper to send fun "snail mail," get their face painted, paint and stencil the paper snail shell that will form the 90-foot-long parade banner or collage their own crowns or snails to carry in the parade, which proceeds down Elmwood Avenue at 4 p.m. Sunday and is a high point of the weekend. "Kids just love to be part of that activity," Chapman said. "It's very rare for children to have that sort of freedom and ability to be part of a big crowd without their parents having them on a leash." The festival is meant to not only highlight the artistic elements of Elmwood Avenue, but also the community as a whole. Businesses along the festival strip are featured in the festival guide and encouraged to stay open, showing off just what Elmwood has to offer. Showcasing the area helps make it more popular, which in turns raises rents and encourages businesses to open on neighboring streets, expanding the prosperity, said DiPasquale.
"From Day One, our goal was to bring in lots of people to the city to walk around that neighborhood and see what a great neighborhood it is," he said. "We wanted to make it so great and so positive and so fun, and highlight what's going on with the arts, the businesses, the neighborhood, the housing, the gardens, the parkways -- everything. To make it so enticing for people that they want to live there."
Chapman agrees the festival is a good indicator of what really matters in her neighborhood.
"There's a certain aesthetic that runs through Elmwood Village that is carried on through the festival of being very pro-active about your community and society and environment," she said. "People who live in this community really care about those things."
In the end, it's about bringing the community together and celebrating what makes it strong and unique. For 11 years, the Elmwood Arts Festival has been doing just that, and this year will be no different.
"That's what we need to do to build a stronger community," DiPasquale said. "You need to break bread, you need to dance together and you need to see that we're all in the same boat."