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First Sundays Shine Brighter

How a monthly get-together grew into an arts festival drawing thousands

People enjoying the Annapolis First Sunday Festival on West Street. <<photo courtesy of Joe Heimbach>>

I love a good mystery, and I was staring at one on West Street in Annapolis on the first Sunday of August as I enjoyed the First Sunday Arts Festival. Not my first time, but the first in at least a year — and something was different. What was it? Larger, more interesting, more vibrant, more alive? Had the Festival changed, or had I?
    It’s not your imagination,” Erik Evans, festival director and executive Director of the Annapolis Arts District, told me. “The festival has 30 percent more exhibitors and 40 percent more visitors than a couple of years ago.”

In the Beginning
    Evans’ heart belongs to Annapolis. He has lived here — just around the block from the festival — since 1999. In 2001 he opened the gallery ARTFX at 45 West Street. He was soon coordinating art receptions with 49 West Coffee House on the first Sunday evening of each month. Other businesses joined in, and the event stretched into an all-day affair.
    Fate intervened in 2003, when portions of West Street closed to traffic for infrastructure work. Booths, which had been confined to the sidewalk, now flowed onto the closed street. Vendors increased, and the event was anointed the First Sunday Arts ­Festival.
    By the time West Street construction was complete, the festival had a life of its own. Once a month artists, entertainers, and outdoor dining flooded inner West Street. In 2008 the festival flowed onto Whitmore Park on Calvert Street. A year later, it expanded to the corner of West and Calvert streets. This year, it spread to the north side of West Street from Calvert to Lafayette streets.
    Estimating attendance is more an art than a science as there are no gates — people wander in from all directions — but the organizers have a method that revealed an average of 7,000 people attending in 2014, up to 10,000 this year.

Artists Rather Than Vendors
    What’s pushing all this growth?
    “There are many great events in good locations,” Evans explains. “But to have an outstanding event, and sustain it eight times a year, you have to offer a set of high-quality artists with diverse and unique skills.”
    At First Sunday Festival, you’ll now find “artists who are selling things they personally created rather than vendors reselling items created by others,” Evans says.
    To recruit quality artists, Evans visits at least a dozen other festivals each year. When talking to prospects, he’s looking for an affirmative answer to two key questions: “do you make what you sell? and will you personally be in your booth?” This year 30 new artists have joined the festival, for a total of 130.
    “As well as quality, you’ve got to have diversity,” Evans says.
    Diversification brought Mark Williams of Williams Blacksmithing from the Eastern Shore and Jeffery Oh of Tree to Art, who makes high-end collectable cutting boards.
    “The return rate of the artists is the key indicator of success in this business,” Evans explained. “They are here to make sales, and if they don’t, they don’t return. We have a 90 percent return rate, very high for this kind of event.”

•   •   •

    Mystery solved. It wasn’t my imagination; First Sunday Arts Festival had changed — and for the better. See for yourself.
    On September 4, the Annapolis Labor Day Parade marches through. October 2 features a pop-up opera, November 6 brings a holiday market, and December 4 the First Sunday combines with the Chocolate Binge Festival.