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Harlem Arts Festival Will be Start of Something Big, Organizers Say

By Jeff Mays | June 29, 2012 10:48am
Saxaphonist Ben Barson will be one of the performers at the inaugural Harlem Arts Festival on June 29 and 30, 2012 at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem.
Saxaphonist Ben Barson will be one of the performers at the inaugural Harlem Arts Festival on June 29 and 30, 2012 at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — Ben Barson, a baritone saxophone player, sees playing at the inaugural Harlem Arts Festival as being a part of something bigger than himself.

"Harlem has been a home away from home and muse for many artists," said Barson, 24, who has lived here for two years. "Being a part of the Harlem Arts Festival is a way to be a part of that history."

The organizers of the festival, which kicks off at Marcus Garvey Park Friday afternoon and runs through Saturday, said they are excited about being able to provide a showcase for Harlem artists that they hope will endure through the years.

"We're humbled to see that in building this organization, with its very specific mission, we are satisfying a desire in the community, and we hope to honor the artistic legacy of Harlem with our contribution," said Chelsea Goding, development director for the festival.

Goding, along with, festival executive director Neal Ludevig and creative director J.J. El-Far, founded the festival to fill what they thought was a gap. The trio saw dance and music festivals being hosted at the newly-renovated Richard Rodgers Amphitheater but felt the full spectrum of the arts, including the visual, was not encompassed in one festival.

The trio launched a Kickstarter campaign where they raised $1,000 over their $12,000 goal and reached out to established arts and community group such as the Harlem School of the Arts and the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce to help choose artists to perform. From there, the idea only gained steam.

"The purpose of the festival is not only to create an enjoyable event, but to foster a sense of solidarity and belonging for the artist community in Harlem," said El-Far. 

"We are saying to the city, "Harlem is an artistic Mecca, and not only can you afford to live here, you can have your work produced in your own community," she added.

Performers at the event include music from the Harlem Symphony Orchestra and the Soul'D Out Band, dance from the Guerilla Dance Collective and theater performances from Queen Esther and Francesca Harper.

"Harlem is a microcosm of our country, and our line up reflects the present day artists who draw inspiration from the incredible legacy of this area," said El-Far.

In addition to performances on two stages, the festival includes family-friendly activities at its Kid's Corner such as a family yoga class with Land Yoga, a mural making class with Harlem School of the Arts, a theater workshop, and merengue and swing dance class among other events.

Visual artists will display their work along the "Gallery Walk" and there will also be vendors.

"Since living in Harlem for the past 5 years, I've always wanted my art to be seen and supported by the community," said visual artist Andre Woolery whose work will be displayed on the walk.

"One of the major considerations in my art is to make it accessible to the young urban communities that may not be as regularly exposed to art."

Goding said there have been many lessons learned from organizing this first festival and planning is already underway for next year.

We already have ideas of how to improve and involve more of the community," she said.

Barson, who is part of a band that regularly plays at the Red Rooster, said he can't wait to play the festival and urged people to come out.

"If they want to be part of something historic they should come out," he said.

The Harlem Arts Festival kicks off Friday afternoon and continues on Saturday. Check the Harlem Art Festival's website for more information.