Last year, the Old Town Art Fair was ready to go, permits and artists in place. But with COVID-19 surging, the festival’s organizers were forced to tell about 250 artists that the summer fair was canceled. The beloved walk-through street event was hardly the only victim: In 2020, all in-person summer festivals in Chicago were canceled.
Anne Giffels hopes to finally welcome those artists back to the streets and curbs of the North Side neighborhood on the weekend of June 12, just a few weeks from now.
“The fair is, to me, it’s always been the kickoff to the summer,” said Giffels, chair of the Old Town Art Fair. “My heart has just been bleeding for all these people who have had no revenue.”
Crowded, boisterous open-air street festivals are a big part of summer in Chicago and not just for attendees. The events, seemingly every weekend in neighborhoods across the city, boost the local economy by sending foot-traffic down commercial thoroughfares, packing them with sun-starved citizens in the mood to revel.
Although revenue figures are difficult to come by, the scale of the trickle-down effect can be observed in just one of the city’s largest free-admission events: The Taste of Chicago festival contributed $106 million to the local economy in 2019. With news of loosening restrictions, festival organizers have renewed hope after a year of disappointments.
According to Giffels, the only thing holding back the Old Town Art Fair is a permit from the city. In a more typical year, she said, they would have obtained the permit months ago; she said the process has been delayed as the city works with organizers on the logistics of restricting capacity.
Meanwhile, Giffels said she’s holding in limbo: Vendors for the food and drink, security, portable toilets and sanitizing equipment are reserved and waiting in the wings. Once the permit is in hand, she said, “all the money can start to flow out to the different people, and we can start to stock up on all that stuff.”
But she acknowledges that the fair’s June date leaves her toeing the edge of the reopening timetable: Current guidelines allow 15 people per 1,000 square feet for outdoor events but, with COVID-19 case positivity decreasing, the city could move swiftly to the next “bridge” phase, which would expand that capacity to 30 people. Encouragingly, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced on Thursday that the city would move forward with its own summer outdoor programming, but many of those top events, including Movies in the Parks and the Windy City Cookout, are scheduled for July and later.
Although neighborhood events can be more nimble than large-scale, ticketed extravaganzas such as Lollapalooza (as of this writing, still up in the air), ones with hoped-for dates earlier in the summer are proving difficult to execute. The popular Do Division Street Fest in the West Town neighborhood is one of the season’s first casualties: It went virtual last year, and this June’s event has been officially canceled.
“Even now in April, we don’t know if summer street festivals will be permitted by the city, let alone if crowded events will be safe to hold,” said Kara Hughes Salgado, executive director of the West Town Chamber of Commerce.
According to Salgado, as many as 60,000 visitors could come through the festival on a good day. And, unlike at an art fair where people mostly walk through, Do Division hosts bands and fashion shows for which large crowds of people stand or sit shoulder to shoulder.
“One of the biggest challenges of street festivals is there is no way to control attendance. It’s the public way,” she said, noting that crowd density is compounded by traffic from passers-by. Because people have a right to walk along a public street, Salgado said limits on capacity are basically impossible to enforce.
Still, she’s hopeful other chamber events can happen later in the summer as the health guidelines evolve. Her organization also runs West Fest Chicago, which typically takes place in July. At the moment, this year’s dates are “TBA.”
Mark Kelly, the commissioner of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, said he’s optimistic COVID restrictions will loosen further. “This will be an unfolding story, but I am confident that as we get deeper in the summer that we are going to start to see the buzz of culture really coming forward in the city,” he recently told WBEZ’s Reset.
According to DCASE, the agency is currently processing about 90 pending permit requests for upcoming special events this summer; some of those are incomplete because organizers haven’t settled on dates. To help local arts organizations recover, DCASE recently announced Arts 77, an initiative to distribute $60 million in grants that can go toward live events such as theater, music and dance performances.
Fair organizer Lee Tomlinson hopes his group can benefit from a grant from the city’s program. Tomlinson runs the 57th Street Art Fair in Hyde Park, which went virtual last year. “We paid out a lot of money last year and had zero revenue,” he said. “So the grant thing especially is of interest to us because at this point we have no way to replenish what we spent and had no income.”
Typically, Tomlinson said, the fair makes roughly $60,000 a year from artist booths and application fees. And, like other neighborhood festivals, he said the crowds give a boost to local businesses, including a nearby school that usually hosts a fundraiser on site. Although the contingency plan is to go virtual again if the permit doesn’t come through in time, Tomlinson is holding out hope for an in-person event in early June.
“We really want to help the artists,” he said. “They’re hurting, I mean, a lot.”
The fair typically sets up under a lush canopy of trees, and Tomlinson said the artists and residents are looking forward to getting out there again — even for just a handful of people at a time.