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Reno's Artown fest: All of July, and mostly free

With more than 300 free events throughout the month of July, organizers of Reno's 14th annual Artown festival are promoting this year's celebration as the perfect vacation destination for families on a budget.
/ Source: The Associated Press

With more than 300 free events throughout the month of July, organizers of Reno's 14th annual Artown festival are promoting this year's celebration as the perfect vacation destination for families on a budget.

The 400 events total range from concerts to cultural celebrations, theatrical performances, dance, art exhibits, outdoor movies and children's workshops — most of them on a downtown park on an island with a band shell in the middle of the Truckee River's free kayaking and tubing park.

Folk singer Richie Havens of Woodstock fame opens with a free concert on July 1 and the Funk Brothers, made up of original Motown performers from Detroit, wrap it up with another free show on Aug. 1.

"This is our time in the spotlight to make everybody realize Reno is really an extraordinary place to be if people are looking for a value-added trip," said Beth Macmillan, executive director of the festival on the edge of the Sierra Nevada less than an hour's drive from scenic Lake Tahoe.

"With so many things to offer, averaging eight free events every day, we can be the vacation for anybody's pocketbook," she said.

In addition to the daily free shows, several ticketed events are scheduled around town including:

  • Jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, July 10
  • Guitarist Ottmar Liebert, July 18
  • Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, July 24
  • "Queen of Bluegrass" Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, July 25
  • Missoula Children's Theater production of "The Pied Piper," July 25
  • Coer D'Alene Art Auction, July 25

About 30,000 people attended the first Artown festival, with its $12,000 operating budget. Last year, 350,000 turned out and even more are expected this year at an event that now spends about $1 million, including a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

And while the headliners draw most of the attention, the hands-on events are a hit with families, from face painting to kite-making and "ice cream sundaes in an art bowl."

"As Artown has grown, it has welcomed a wider range of attendees with stuff for kids, adults, all the different performing arts — and most of it is free," said Bethany Drysdale, spokeswoman for the Nevada Commission on Tourism.

"We hope that whatever money people are saving they go spend it on a great dinner or stay an extra night in town. It really raises the bar for Reno, which has been going through a renaissance of sorts and sort of re-establishing itself as an outdoor destination. Even people in town are rediscovering their own home," she said.

Jennifer Hicks, an executive assistant at slot machine-maker International Gaming Technology, is among the locals who used to spend summer vacations on the road but now clears her calendar for Artown.

"I'm an international traveler. I went to China last December, but I stay in Reno for July," she said.

"I love the 'Movies in the Park' and the events at Bartley Ranch (amphitheater) where they have classical music every Monday night," she said, adding that it is the kind of entertainment usually reserved for cities bigger than the 400,000 people who make up the "Biggest Little City in the World."

Families bring blankets, lawn chairs and picnics to the island Wingfield Park for the movie series that this year includes such favorites as "Mary Poppins," ''Beauty in the Beast" and Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest."

Organizers bill it as the "largest, most diverse" arts festival in the nation. Macmillan said that's based on its "size and scope" — covering all the disciplines of art and culture, including history and the humanities.

Mario Garcia Durham, the NEA's director of presenting, said it is difficult to compare one festival to another.

"But obviously this organization in Reno has really grown. It's citywide and has a huge impact," he said from Washington D.C.

Macmillan said it originally was modeled after the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., but that Spoleto is divided into two parts, with ticketed events during one part and local presenters during the other, while Artown combines the two throughout July.

"When Artown first started, that was the pie-in-the-sky dream to aspire to be like," she said.

Cultural celebrations include a Gospel Fest (July 19), Pacific Island Festival (July 24-25) and the 30th annual North American Basque Festival (July 25-26).

Other highlights include a presentation on "The Life of Bob Marley" by Roger Steffens, founding editor of The Beat magazine who will present film, photos, stories and music of the late reggae legend on July 8.

"Not only do you get free arts, but you get meaningful arts, from Woodstock to Motown," Macmillan said.

"It's Richie Havens' only West Coast date on his tour and it's free. The Funk Brothers played with Marvin Gaye, the Supremes and the Temptations. We're exposing people to genres they may not know much about," she said.

Four blocks from Wingfield Park is the Nevada Museum of Art, where July's exhibits include Chuck Close and Contemporary Portraiture, and the photography of the German husband-and-wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher.

And for those looking for other diversions, four blocks the other direction is a spanking new minor league baseball stadium that opened in April on the banks of the Truckee River, home of the Pacific Coast League's Reno Aces, the AAA affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"I can drop my kids downtown," Macmillan said, "and they can go to a baseball game, go to a movie, get something to eat and go to a free Artown event all for about $30."