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Blumenthal Arts
Winter 2024
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The Best of Both Worlds
Local and International artists happily collide at CIAF, and festivalgoers reap the rewards
U.K. artist Luke Jerram's Earth exhibit Gaia hangs above the International Bazaar in Founders Hall.
U.K. artist Luke Jerram's Earth exhibit Gaia hangs above the International Bazaar in Founders Hall.
Festivalgoers take in the
Festivalgoers take in the "Fantastic Planet" exhibit by Amanda Parer.
Nouveau Sud performs at Ballantyne's Backyard.
Nouveau Sud performs at Ballantyne's Backyard.
Close-Act Birdmen hang out around the food truck.
Close-Act Birdmen hang out around the food truck.
Festivalgoers light up the night at the
Festivalgoers light up the night at the "Aqueous" exhibit.
by Page Leggett
Any way you look at it, the second Charlotte International Arts Festival (CIAF) was a success.
More than 500,000 people attended one of 53 ticketed events or the more than 170 free events from Sept. 15 through Oct. 1. Folks from 360 cities in the Carolinas attended one or more events, and there were 250-plus to choose from. So did people from 42 states, Washington, D.C., and two Canadian provinces.
The 17-day festival is inclusive, playful and cosmopolitan without being highbrow. Blumenthal President and CEO Tom Gabbard calls it “much more like an arts festival in Europe.”
Artists came from across the globe, making it truly international.
Birdmen (interactive bird puppets) flew in from the Netherlands. All the way from Italy and Portugal came the giant interactive squid sculpture Lotty by Moradavaga – a big sensation with kids. Tablao Flamenco brought the heat from Spain.
Amanda Parer – creator of those beloved giant bunnies from previous festivals – came from Tasmania with her "Fantastic Planet" exhibit. “Amanda’s work has been in hundreds of cities, and still, CIAF stood out to her as unique,” Gabbard said. “Several visiting artists remarked on our city’s enthusiasm for the festival. Charlotteans are wildly excited about it.”
Amanda Parer, creator of the beloved giant bunnies from previous festivals, interacts with her "Fantastic Planet" exhibit at CIAF during her visit to Charlotte.
The international element is a point of pride, but Gabbard may be most excited about how the festival benefits local artists.
“Too often they’re not treated with the same respect as visiting artists,” he said. “They’re not in the good venues. They’re not given the same visibility. We treat them as equals and have projects the international and local artists work on collaboratively. That sets us apart from other festivals.”
The artists who flew in from all over the globe weren’t the only international participants. Charlotte has become an international city, and CIAF provided space for Charlotte’s multicultural groups to promote their work. From inside Founders Hall, representatives sold their wares and shared information at the International Bazaar.
In addition, Blumenthal blended local and global through partnerships with two long-standing cultural festivals – the Festival of India and the Latin American Festival.
NC Brazilian Arts Project performs at the Charlotte International Arts Festival.
Hello, Fellow
Bree Stallings plays a major role in CIAF’s success. The accomplished and well-connected visual artist has a talent for nurturing other artists.
Stallings, Blumenthal’s director of artistic experiences, created the Blumenthal Arts Fellows program to help local artists tap into the festival circuit.
Stallings herself is one reason the program is successful. “Artists trust Bree,” Gabbard said. “Without Bree, some of them may have dismissed the opportunity, wondered if it was worthwhile. But when something comes from Bree, artists have a sense of trust and confidence.”
In March, Blumenthal issued a call to local artists to apply. They sought work that was interactive and accessible, could work equally well during the day and after dark and was “resilient to the touch of tens of thousands of festivalgoers.” Fellows are awarded grants – ranging from $2,500 to $22,500 – to help bring their big ideas to life. Blumenthal fellowships can be life-changing for artists. Since its inception, Blumenthal has awarded Fellows $300,000 in funds.
Children play among the "Critterz" by Blumenthal Arts Fellow Dorne Pentes.
Angela Clousher, Anuja Jain, Mike Wirth, Greg Urquhart, Tara Spil, Laurie Smithwick, Rosa Diaz, Claire Kiester and Dorne Pentes made up the 2023 Fellows. They “already had distinctive voices,” Stallings said. “They wanted to learn how to create a giant piece for a festival … how to find collaborators, fabricators, installation teams.”
To apply, you don’t need to know how to fabricate your grand idea. But you should be clear on what you want to convey, Stallings said. Judges are looking for “interactive, culturally significant art that can withstand the brunt of a festival – weather and people.”

A festivalgoer checks out one of the 100 Tiny Things exhibits.
Please touch the art
Seeing all those people enjoying, even touching, their art was a thrill for artists.
“Some arts festivals are, or can be perceived as, elitist,” Gabbard said. Not this one. CIAF gives people the chance to interact with art. It’s a hands-on experience.
Anuja Jain’s Blumenthal Fellows project, “Birdhouse Forest,” proved irresistible. People were drawn to her 30 hand-painted birdhouses, which all featured the brilliant colors of Jain’s native India.
“My idea was to bring happiness to people,” she said. “It’s not always the big things that bring joy. Small things can put a smile on your face.”
Jain knows about the joy of small things. Her art was chosen to be part of CIAF’s outdoor “100 Tiny Things” installation, which Blumenthal describes as “part surprise, part treasure hunt.” Each selected artist got a stipend of $200 per project and got to see their tiny treasures on view in Ballantyne’s Backyard.
Blumenthal Fellow Greg Urquhart got a kick out of watching responses to “What the Duck,” his 6-foot-tall, double-sided sculpture made of thousands of 1.5-inch rubber ducks.
He spotted a preschool class gathered around it in obvious delight. He also saw uptown workers – bankers, he imagined – step outside, stone-faced before noticing the big yellow duck before them. They couldn’t help but smile.

“As an artist, it’s priceless to see that kind of reaction,” he said.
Contestants compete in the final round of the MJ Lip Sync Battle & Dance Party at the Wells Fargo Stage.
Building connections and confidence
Being a Blumenthal Fellow was a “wonderful experience” for Jain, who said, “I had a lot of doubts at first. But Bree and the other Fellows were so encouraging. I now feel ready to put my work out there.”
She and Urquhart have both applied to other arts festivals – something the fellowship gave them the know-how and confidence to do.
“I’d never applied for anything this big,” Urquhart said of Blumenthal Fellows. “It was a huge honor, and it was nice to have the curtain pulled back on the festival world. Bree explained everything about how the (application) process works and how to be competitive.”
Urquhart enjoyed getting to know and work with other Fellows. “This was a great collaboration,” he said. “We helped each other with ideas and troubleshooting. From the beginning, Bree reminded us we were a team. My biggest takeaway is that no one does this alone.”
FELA! The Concert performs at The Amp Ballantyne.
‘A festival for everybody’
The business community showed its support this year as Blumenthal welcomed the first CIAF corporate sponsors. The Leon Levine Foundation led the way with a generous gift of $100,000.
That level of support means admission costs can be kept low – free in most cases. Even ticketed events are accessible; prices started as low as $5. CIAF truly is, as Gabbard said, “a festival for everybody.”
“No matter your age or background, there’s something for you,” he said. He’s intent on continuing and growing the festival. Shortly after CIAF concluded, Blumenthal announced that the third CIAF was already being planned for Sept. 13-29, 2024.
“Our ambition is to see this become a major regional, annual festival that people travel some distance to attend,” he said. “I think the possibility is real; we’ve created something quite distinct in the art world.” ◼