2016-07-01 / Features

50 Golden Years

This month, photographer Dick Brown will participate in the 50th Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. Here, he remembers the first 49.
Robyn Passante

Photo courtesy Dick Brown.Photo courtesy Dick Brown.

Bellefonte photographer Dick Brown remembers the first Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, back in 1967, as being a bit of a delightfully disorganized endeavor.

“You weren’t assigned a spot,” he says of the inaugural sidewalk art sale, part of the nine-day event organized in two months’ time and sponsored by Penn State’s College of Arts and Architecture and the State College Chamber of Commerce. It drew hundreds to the center of town to catch live performances of musicians, see artists at work, and browse the artwork and other eccentricities for sale.

In the last 50 years, the festival’s sidewalk art sale has evolved into one of the nation’s premier outdoor art and craft events, but there have remained two constants every year: There is art for sale, and 80-year-old Brown’s is among it.

Brown, a Bellefonte native, is the only artist to have been selected to participate in every Arts Fest since its inception. In 1967 he was a Centre Daily Times photographer who dabbled in portrait and landscape photography as well as photograph painting, an art form that involves hand-coloring a photograph using paint. That year he brought several of his framed images of local Amish families to sell on College Avenue. “Around 10 a.m. they’d come by and collect $20 or something for your booth fee,” he says of the early Arts Fest organizers. “Then you tore down that night, and if you didn’t get there early the next day, you might not be in the same spot.”

There were no tents or elaborate setups like today, Brown says. Artists hung their wares on snow fences or simply displayed them on the ground, sometimes eyeing better locations — areas with more shade or more foot traffic — and making plans to get there even earlier the next day to snag a sweeter spot.

“It always rained at least once or twice,” he recalls, describing how the artists would hastily cover their Photo courtesy Dick Brown.Photo courtesy Dick with fat rolls of white plastic. “You’d look down College Avenue and see tents of white plastic everywhere, and the artists would sit underneath the plastic.”

Today the annual five-day Arts Fest draws thousands of arts lovers to State College to buy work from a nationwide pool of artists and artisans, as well as to catch live performances in just about every genre of music. But that first year, the event had no reputation or expectation. “People came more out of curiosity. They didn’t know why all these people were along College Avenue, so they came to look,” Brown says.

“We made maybe $200 to $300 that year. That wouldn’t even pay for the booth fee today.”

Today, Brown pays $1,000 for the equivalent of two 10-by-10-foot spaces so he can give people room to move around more freely while they look at his art. While he stays in the same spot up on Allen Street so returning customers can easily find him, the retired photojournalist makes it a point to change something about his tent space each year — a tradition he’s kept since before there were tents.

Photo courtesy Dick Brown.Photo courtesy Dick Brown.“In about 1975 I took an old horse-drawn freight wagon from my collection of horse-drawn vehicles, and put barn-wood boards up the front and along the sides, and hung my stuff off the barn wood. And then I had a trough hanging off the side of it for my flip rack,” he says. “I spent a lot of money on frames and mat boards and everything, and I had what it cost me to do the show marked down on the back of the wagon. Every time I sold a picture I deducted it from what it cost me. Finally I was making more than what I’d spent; I was so nervous with that.”

The sidewalk sale became a juried event in 1971. Artists began having to submit five slides of their work, and each year a new panel of judges grants tent spaces to the best of the best. Rick Bryant, the Arts Fest’s executive director, says on average they get between 900 and 1,000 applicants a year and select just 305 sidewalk sale artists. Besides the top percentage of the previous year’s winners being invited back, no preferential treatment is given to artists who’ve been selected before, and all the artwork remains anonymous during the judging process, Bryant says.

Brown says he does get nervous each November when he submits his slides, but he’s thankful they always ask him to return. Though crowds aren’t as thick in recent years as they were in the ’80s and ’90s, the octogenarian says Arts Fest is still a good bet for a weekend’s worth of sitting and selling.

“If I make less than $7,000 or $8,000 I feel like it’s been a bad show,” says Brown, who used to travel to about three art shows a month but is now down to doing just a handful a year. “We’ve had years, 20 or 30 years ago, when we’d make $10,000.”

His work has long focused on the local Amish community, which he has been a peripheral part of for decades.

“I’m a good woodworker — I learned from my dad, who restored antique furniture. And when [the Amish] were building barns I would go over and cut the wood. My tools were very sharp and in good shape,” he says. “I was a head carpenter at one of the barn raisings.”

Brown says he’s tried to be a good neighbor over the years, shoeing their horses on occasion and respecting their way of living, and in return they have welcomed him as a friend and allowed him to capture their lifestyle on film.

While his subjects haven’t changed much in 50 years, the technology associated with his art sure has, and Brown’s skills have evolved along with it. He now shoots digital images and uses a computer program to enhance them in the same ways he once accomplished using chemicals, light and time.

“I use Photoshop to do what I could have done in the darkroom — dodging, burning. The only thing is with Photoshop, I can be more precise,” he says.

These days he’s battling cataracts that are threatening his eyesight, but they’re not slowing down his passion or his art.

“As soon as I put the camera to my eyes, everything’s good,” he says.

And he’s looking forward to seeing familiar faces come by to say hello on Allen Street this year, just as he has every July for the past 49 years.

“It’s kind of like old home week for me. It’s a reunion of people I haven’t seen in a long time. And I look forward to that.” •SCM


The Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts is a celebration of the arts every year, but this year it’s also a celebration of itself. With Arts Fest turning 50, organizers have spent months planning not just the usual five-day showcase of regional and national artistic talent, but also myriad ways for all of us to reflect on and celebrate five decades of hosting one of the finest arts festivals in the country.

Festive Spirits Party
This year, organizers are hosting “a benefit party for ourselves,” Bryant says, from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, July 15, outside at The Towers on South Allen Street. There will be gin and vodka drinks compliments of Big Spring Spirits in Bellefonte, as well as hors d’oeuvres and live entertainment. Tickets are $50 and proceeds benefit the Arts Fest.

The idea sprang from former Arts Fest organizer Bob Potter’s tradition of hosting a gin and tonic party at the University Club during the festival.

“I think it’ll be fun,” Bryant says of the low-key benefit. “Something different to support the Arts Fest.”

Banners on Display
“From the first Arts Fest, we still have three things,” says Rick Bryant. “The sidewalk sale, outdoor free music and banners.”

As organizers prepared for the first Arts Fest, they hung colorful banners downtown to herald the creativity to come. That turned into an annual Banner Competition that has been going strong for 50 years, and this year organizers are parading out all of the previous years’ banners to display around town.

With nearly 300 banners in the Arts Fest collection, there are too many to string along Allen Street, so look for vintage Arts Fest banners at Centre Furnace Mansion, The Makery, State College Municipal Building, and on campus at The Arboretum at Penn State and the HUB-Robeson Center.

Share Your Memories
The Centre County Historical Society on East College Avenue is hosting an exhibition to highlight the history of the Arts Fest, with photos and stories from its past 49 years.

“We made a timeline of what happened when, which was pretty involved,” says Bryant, who worked with photographer-artist Dick Brown to piece together highlights of the festival’s early days until today.

“Dick’s been a tremendous resource. He had hundreds of photos he shared with us. We would not know what the festival looked like in, say, 1973, without Dick.”

You can add your own memories to the public record at the exhibition through October and online at

Even More Memories
The Penn State University Archives also will display its Arts Fest artifacts – including T-shirts, buttons, banners, newspaper clippings and more – in the Special Collections Exhibition Gallery at the Pattee and Paterno Libraries and at Hintz Family Alumni Center through July 29 and Aug. 2, respectively.

Italian Street Painting Stroll
The Downtown State College Italian Street Painting Festival will once again feature national and regional street painters as well as the Young Artists Alley for would-be artists of any age to try the age-old art. This year, street painters are adding an Italian tradition to the event.

The evening stroll, or passeggiata, is a feature of Italian urban life, where people enjoy a leisurely evening stroll to gaze at store windows while music plays in the background. Street painters will be dressed up to host their own Friday evening passeggiata on the 100 block of Heister Street, with Italian music and lots of fine street paintings at which to gaze.

Fiftieth Festival Cake and Ice Cream Social
No birthday would be complete without cake and ice cream. From 1 to 2 p.m. Sunday, join Arts Fest staff on Old Main Plaza for free Wegmans cupcakes and Berkey Creamery ice cream. At 2 p.m., there will be a birthday photo taken of the crowd, so stick around and become part of Arts Fest history.

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