How the Dogwood Arts Festival’s getting its bloom back
Wednesday, April 12
From Artsy-Fartsy to Cutting Edge
For decades, the Dogwood Arts Festival reigned as queen over downtown’s perennial festivities. And from the get-go, downtown has supported her with a fierce loyalty. But in recent years, the queen’s regal façade has grown pale in the eyes of a city with waning interest in quilts and cloggers. Its place in the popular spotlight has been threatened by newer festivals boasting wine, beer or baklava in lieu of funnel cakes and lemonade.
The pink ’n’ white-hued festival, however, refuses to fold—and thanks to positive changes at the behest of current director Ed Pasley and 2006 co-chair Eddie Mannis, its future is looking downright sunny.
Then again, DAF’s been feisty since the beginning. 1992 festival co-chair Becky Massey is the daughter of John Duncan, who was mayor at the time DAF was founded. Of the city’s motivations, she recalls, “There was a John Gunther story written in  about going through Knoxville, and he said it was the ugliest city he’d ever been to. That got people’s gumption up. We said, ‘we’re not, and we’ll make it prettier.”
The trails came first, beginning with a scenic loop through Sequoyah Hills in 1956. Then, with the help of the Chamber of Commerce and the Junior League, came the festival itself in 1961. It was the year after Market Square’s namesake Market House burned and was subsequently torn down, and the festival fit the hole. Massey recalls visiting the festival with her father as a child. “The Dogwood Festival was always there; it was a special thing,” she says. “It’s been such an integral part of the city and the life of the spring. Other festivals are short and sweet. This is just kind of the essence of Knoxville.”
On weekdays, Market Square filled with crafts vendors and entertainers, and though it closed shop before sundown, it was a popular afternoon destination for downtown business folk. “It was always packed at lunchtime,” Massey says.
Fast-forward to the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, years when downtown seemed more empty than full. But the festival kept its chin up, says Nancy Gettlefinger, who co-chaired the festival in 1980. “It was still a really neat time to be involved. We still had our crafts and things on Market Square, and we still had food every day.” She recalls its highlights: the launch of a home & garden show, an Oak Ridge Boys concert, a 50- or 60-competitor battle of the bands, and an especially well attended prayer breakfast. Community support was still very much present, as well. “It was at a time when everyone wanted to be a volunteer for Dogwood Arts Festival, and hardly anyone ever turned you down,” she says.
In the early ‘80s, parts of the festival began diffusing to other parts of town; in the ‘90s, the most popular event—an air show—was held at the airport, and the trend continued until the turn of the century. Co-chair of the 2000 festival, Dale Workman, pushed DAF to branch out into suburban areas—Farragut, Fountain City and Oak Ridge—with successful results.
“ The city really changed in its customs and habits, and maybe our festival didn’t change with it,” Workman says. Workman, who remembers getting out of school to watch DAF parades in the ‘60s, admits that the festival’s changed over the years, but that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. “It’s not what it used to be, but that’s true of everything,” he says. “They focus on one part, one activity, for a while, and then they go on to another thing. It’s a natural process.”
Today’s DAF is still in transition. While the suburban festival activities remain popular, there’s a move to re-ignite downtown’s participation. It faces new challenges, particularly the area’s younger demographic.
In preparation for this year’s festival, held April 7 through 30, 2006 co-chair Eddie Mannis’ mission was two-fold. “First, my focus was to try to get back to the festival’s heritage, with events centered on the arts: performing arts, visual arts...just getting more creative,” he says. “We’re trying to be more progressive as well—it’s a great festival, but it needs to be updated.”
Listening to what the city wanted was part of it as well. In response to myriad requests, Mannis has instituted a beer and wine gallery on Market Square for this weekend’s festivities. When local military troops requested a homecoming parade, Mannis organized one. Celebrate America, for which 1,400 to 1,500 troops will march down Gay Street, is scheduled for April 22 at 2 p.m.
Mannis’ emphasis on the arts has fielded a few new events, including a concert by the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, a downtown gallery walk on April 21, and a multi-media event called Dogwood Sonic Forest on April 20 thru 23. The latter will be held at in the Krutch Park Extension and will involve dancers from a number of area companies. They intend to move among a series of 9-foot-tall cylinders designed by world-renowned architect Christopher Janney, stimulating motion-sensitive sounds and lights.
Local dancer/choreographer/instructor Angela Hill is the on the Sonic Forest’s organizing committee. “It’s a way to bring people together and find a common movement language that allows us to move and interact with the installation,” she explains. Both Hill and Mannis describe the event as an experiment, and Hill notes that audience interaction will be encouraged as well.
“We were looking for something new and interesting and progressive,” Mannis says of the event. Sounds like another step in the right direction.
Wednesday, April 12
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