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  • ArtsintheMiddle

Celebrating 10 Years of the Arts In The Middle Fine Arts Festival

In 2014, Urbanna's annual Art on the Half Shell (AOTHS) Fine Arts Show was years gone, and the once vibrant local arts scene was flat. Newly hired Middlesex County EDA Director Chris Ingram set out to revive the scene in partnership with the Town of Urbanna. At the time, the Virginia Commission of the Arts was offering a Community Impact Grant, in which a government entity could receive a $5,000 one-to-one match for local community art programs. With combined local funds and the grant, $20,000 became available to support a new fine arts festival. Local businessman Walt Hurley offered 17th century Hewick Plantation as the backdrop for the event, along with support from Bethpage Camp-Resort.

To meet the VCA requirements, Ingram invited county residents Hilton Snowden, Ginny Sawkins, Jean Rhame, and Celane and Hank Roden to develop an initial plan. When the AOTHS name and non-profit was determined unavailable, Arts In The Middle was born. The team reached across county lines for partnership with Gloucester Arts on Main Director Kay Van Dyke, who joined the team to oversee finances. Graphic artist Ken Rygh generously donated the logo design, and a plan was set to host a two-day fine arts event set for May 30-31, 2015.

The initial group morphed into the official Arts in the Middle Fine Arts Festival Planning Team.  Celane Roden became team coordinator. Ginny Sawkins, with years of expertise leading AOTHS, agreed to recruit and manage artists. Hilton Snowden and Hank Roden took on marketing, and Jean Rhame headed up fundraising. Local residents Kathy Swinehart, Rebecca Eggleston, Jody Anglin, Theron Green, Carol King, and Cheryl Coloff rounded out the team. In support, the Middlesex County Museum generously donated office/meeting space.  

Show time was now ten months away, so the call for artists began in earnest. Outreach brought in an impressive number of applicants from Florida to Maine for juror review. Final selections resulted in 105 fine artists, along with local artists who would be featured in a local artist tent. The logistical team worked closely with Bethpage staff to ensure all would be in place the week before the show. The marketing team designed and purchased ads in area magazines, newspapers, social media and other outlets to ensure a solid audience of arts shoppers. 

The music team recruited a vast slate of musicians to perform throughout both days, while the hospitality team selected culinary talent from Merroir for food service and designed a beverage tent. Middlesex High School and Christchurch School art departments recruited students for a Student Art Tent. The artist reception team made plans for a reception with heavy hors d'oeuvres, where "Best of" awards would be presented to artists selected by a visiting judge. The children's team created a pop-up pond with small toy boats to assemble and decorate.  

The fundraising team worked tirelessly to bring donations from the local business community and individual donors. By March 2015, the community based team was a well-oiled machine preparing to deliver on the promise of a lovely weekend of fine arts, music and local food, but only if volunteers were available to help.  

The volunteer team put out a call and the community responded! Volunteers marked tent spaces for artists before the show, greeted and assisted during arrivals and offered water and breaks throughout the weekend, and helped with festival cleanup. Others ensured logistics were in place and well equipped for show time, and greeted musicians as they arrived, offering golf cart rides to those in need. The Kiwanis Club of Middlesex managed parking and guided visitors to the volunteer-manned AIM Welcome Tent. With limited overnight accommodations available in the area, locals opened their homes and hosted overnight guests. 

After the show, artist evaluations described Hewick as the perfect setting, raved about how organized everything was, and offered appreciation for the friendly volunteer support.  While the buying public was small, as expected for any first year show, most artists declared this to be one of their new favorite shows, with every expectation of growing crowds in future years. 

Feeling confident after the show’s success, the team began to build a new non-profit arts organization to manage the festival, and to recreate an active local art scene for Middlesex county.  In time to receive the VCA grant funding for the next year's festival, Arts in the Middle, Inc. was recognized with federal and state approval and licensing. The initial Board of Directors (Celane Roden, Carol King, Kathy Swinehart, Candy Newman, and Rebecca Eggleston) ably put the organization in place and began planning for the 2016 festival and other arts events throughout the year. 

As the 10th anniversary of Arts in the Middle approaches, the current AIM board, led by Michael Kunzinger, Brindley Sears, Mary Ellen Hunnekens, Leslie Jackson, Patina Janisko, and Clayton Neal, along with a 30+ person festival planning team, are as enthusiastic as the originators. Much of the successful show design remains in place, with a few additions and alterations made along the way, and in 2019 Brindley Sears assumed leadership as Event Coordinator. 

The festival is now a fixture in the Eastern Virginia art scene, and in 2023 boasted its highest attendance with 2,300 visitors. Word of mouth and popularity among artists is high, and each year mainstays are joined by new artists. Year over year, the music program receives rave reviews, and culinary offerings continue to be popular among festival goers. Highlights also include visits from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts traveling art show, the ever-popular AIM Champagne Tent, and historical presentations from the Museums of Middlesex. 

Outside of the festival, AIM has also been able to sponsor an annual Christmas pop-up gallery, outdoor art events and retrospective art shows, including the current Arts at the Point local artist gallery in Deltaville. 

Without volunteers and support from local business and community members, the Arts In The Middle Fine Arts Festival would cease to exist. Much appreciation is also given to the Kiwanis Club of Middlesex, Middlesex County Museums, River Counties Community Foundation, the Town of Urbanna, and the Middlesex EDA. 

We hope you will join us in celebrating 10 years of Arts in the Middle Fine Arts Festival June 1-2, 2024!

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