Last year, percussionist and music teacher Marcus Santos performed in a handful of outdoor events the Somerville Arts Council (SAC) was able to organize. With strict social distancing guidelines enforced, the council arranged safe, pop-up performances, Santos recalls, with no prior advertising.
“We just showed up in a place, outdoors,” Santos said, “everybody’s wearing masks, everybody’s far away, and we’d take the audience we could get.”
This year, however, with Massachusetts opening up, bigger gatherings have resumed in-person and so has the ArtBeat Festival, the yearly arts festival organized by SAC.
Santos will perform with his band of 10 drummers, Grooversity, instead of performing alone with a sound system — as he did last year, and he’s excited to get back to performing in front of a crowd.
“I hope we’ll remember the good old days, somehow,” Santos said. “We’ll have everybody jumping and sweating and smiling and having a good time just like it was before.”
While the nostalgia of the pre-pandemic normal offers a comfortable cocoon, things are not completely back to the way they were. As a result, the festival this year has shaped up to be a little unconventional.
Rachel Strutt, the cultural director at SAC, noted that they were working with a smaller budget and expected the festival to be half the size it is every year. The preparation of the festival evolved with the state safety guidelines, she said.
What was meant to be a festival spread out over multiple days is now a traditional one-day event in Davis Square on Saturday, July 10. Apart from that, there are many other differences for this year’s edition of ArtBeat. Two stages for music have been replaced by one located at Seven Hills Park with mobile performances that will feature musicians performing for everyone around, whether they are there for ArtBeat or simply enjoying a meal at one of the outdoor restaurants.
“We had to shift the way that we curate an event,” Strutt said. “Rather than have an open call to artists and musicians that would give people a couple of months to apply, we set up some strategic partnerships.”
Crafts coordinator for the festival Heather Balchunas partnered with the Somerville Flea for the crafts of this year’s festival. Having already collaborated with them for events in the past, Balchunas says that this time it isn’t the SAC but the Somerville Flea curating the crafts for sale, giving 40 vendors the chance to showcase their work at the festival.
“Because this is going to be a hybrid version of ArtBeat, we thought it would be a good way to be able to help support our existing ArtBeat craft vendors and also to support the Somerville Flea,” Balchunas said.
After being limited within the confines of the virtual world for more than a year, as people slowly began emerging from behind their screens, SAC, fittingly, decided on this year’s theme to be “pop.”
“I think people are so hungry to get back to regular life and celebrate arts and community again, so the “pop,” kind of, came out of that,” Strutt said. “But then, I think there are so many ways you can interpret the theme.”
An art installation, curated by SAC event coordinator Iaritza Menjivar, at the Kenney Park Basketball Court in Davis Square called “This is POP” will showcase visual art from artists Michael Talbot, Cindy Weisbart, Raysa Mederos and Jaina Cipriano. It will encapsulate the theme with vibrant colors and stories of the artists “popping out” of quarantine.
Emily Bloomenthal, a dancer who will perform at the festival, believes the “serendipitous” creation of her piece to be the result of short dance videos she made that popped on Facebook last year. Poet and letterpress printer Heather Hughes wants her art to pop up in people’s lives, even when they’re not expecting it. She’ll be sharing her poetry on posters hung up on telephone poles, business windows and trees.
Performing for a live audience after over a year, Jef Czekaj — like the other artists — is nervous, but is also keen on returning to a sense of community that platforms like ArtBeat foster. He’ll be hitting the stage with songs about interesting snippets of Somerville’s history. While one of his songs talks about the time when Barack Obama lived in Somerville, another talks about the Old Powder House at Nathan Tufts Park which was once a pickle factory.
Through the past year, artists have been grateful to technology that allowed them to share their art virtually across boundaries. But a resonating sentiment is that of excitement to be able to connect with a live audience again.
For Santos, who wants to promote diversity and use music for social change, the energy of a crowd is pivotal to his pursuit of music or as he likes to call it, “the pursuit of happiness.”
“Music’s therapeutic,” he said. “We can get people to remove their mind from whatever is happening in their lives and bring them to the present for those few minutes that we have together when we’re performing.”