49 Going on 50: Festival of the Arts’ first-ever director is preparing for the semicentennial

Ten years ago, David Abbott had moved back to his hometown of Grand Rapids, unsure of what to do next. He began work at ArtPrize, which slowly but surely led him on the path to April of 2018, when he became the first-ever executive director of Festival of the Arts. In conversation, it’s immediately clear that Abbott is passionate about his community and the festival itself.

We talked with Abbott about his memories of the festival, and where his team plans to take it all in 2018 and beyond.


We’re excited about having you around.

Well, I’m certainly excited about being around. This is, gosh, a unique opportunity and a tremendous giveback to the community. I’ve grown up here. Born and raised in Southeast Grand Rapids and I’m 54 years old this year, so I am only five years older than the first festival.

That’s wild.

I would’ve been here for the very first festival.

What do you remember thinking about the festival at the time?

Growing up, I didn’t have a chance to experience food that was very different from what my mother and grandmother were aware of. I grew up in a time where dad didn’t cook much in the kitchen. It was my mother and my grandmother, and their recipes weren’t culturally different. But the first time I came to Festival, I had souvlaki and it was my first taste of something that was different than what would be served at my family table. I think Festival has offered a lot to this community that many people don’t really think about unless they intentionally reflect upon all the changes that have happened in these last 49 years.

It's changed a lot.

There was no DeVos Hall. There was no Frederik Meijer Gardens. There wasn’t a UICA. All of the things that we now have as arts in this community — at the time, when the Calder was installed, the downtown area was a desolate space with no landmark or anything to rally around. So, to have this opportunity to work on this event is a great thing.

This year, is there anything you’re particularly excited about?

Well, gosh, you know, just getting the chance to experience the festival again. And, on the inside, really watching this unbelievable dedication of people and what they give to this event. It’s the amount of their time and their energy, and they’re away from their families. It’s truly a labor of love on behalf of hundreds of people. That alone has been an amazing thing for me to witness.

What’s new this year?

We have comic arts. I know we’ve had Grand Rapids Comic Con for the last few years, and that’s grown significantly, and we’ve never purposefully showcased that within Festival of the Arts. So there’s a very specific platform, both on Friday and Saturday night of festival in Rosa Parks Circle.

There’s a special part of the regional arts festival this year that was a photography contest, photographing the Sixth Street Bridge. We have a number of photographic artists who have entered pieces just of that landmark of Grand Rapids. And there’s always some new food. There’s a booth this year that’s doing grilled pineapple. Considering my diet, I probably should be in the line with grilled pineapple instead of the line for something ... less grilled pineapple.

We brought the demonstration tent back this year, so we have a number of artists who will be showing what they’re capable of doing and what their practice is within the arts.

What do you have in mind for the 50th?

I’m not certain what everybody’s going to bring to the party for a 50th celebration, and yet, we know we want to intentionally invite all of the arts platforms in this community from dance studios all the way to the ballet. We want to make sure everyone feels like there’s that invitation for collaboration on our 50th. If your parents make it all the way to 50 years of marriage, or if you make it 50 years of life, that absolutely deserves a bigger event than what happened on the 49th.

What has the reaction been to your new position?

When I was growing up, I worked at Mary Anne’s chocolate in Brenton Village when I was 16 years old. Mary Anne, bless her, is still around. Her message to me was, ‘I am so grateful that you’re gonna do this with Festival, because sometimes older things get forgotten.’ What I’m hopeful is our team can show the community that Festival still has tremendous value, and still has that opportunity for reaching the next generation without losing the connection to the generation that started it.