Evolving SunFest drops artist booths, focuses exclusively on music for first time in 40 years
ROCHELLE BAKER HUGHES enjoys SunFest for what it delivered for most of the past 40 years — a two-for-one celebration of music and visual arts on the downtown West Palm Beach waterfront.
She could watch a great local band like Spred the Dub, then kill an hour or two before an Earth Wind & Fire show browsing paintings, sculptures, photographs and jewelry from artists around the country in booths along Flagler Drive.
“We’d start at one end, go all the way down and go back up and take our time,’’ she said. “It was great talking to the artists, and we bought a few things, too.’’
But the days of that SunFest double feature appear to be over.
For the first time since the inaugural 1983 SunFest, there will be no artist exhibits at the 2023 festival, which starts this weekend (May 5-7). The artist booths are “on hold,’’ organizers say, along with two other popular staples, the festival-ending fireworks display and the 5K race.
It's part of a SunFest strategy to focus on what organizers say festival-goers want most: Music for the masses, including premier music acts like this year's headliners The Killers and Jack Johnson.
“One entity does what we do, and that's us. We bring music to people's backyard,’’ Paul Jamieson, SunFest’s executive director since 1996, said in an interview.
"It's national caliber music. We said, ‘The customers are telling us we’re all about music. Let's concentrate on what we do best and the parts that are not duplicated elsewhere.’”
The changes also include more cuts and higher ticket prices. The 2023 festival will be held on two stages over three days this year – instead of three stages and four days in 2022. And if you didn't take advantage of earlier discounts offering $70 or $90 for a one-day pass, it will cost $100 for a one-day pass at the gate.
Last year, the first since a two-year pandemic hiatus, the initial pricing started at $45 (weekday) and $50 (weekend) for a 1-day pass. Those one-day prices increased to $65 (weekday) and $70 (weekend) if purchased the day of the event at the gate. Bad weather wound up keeping attendance down in 2022.
When SunFest announced the changes Feb. 22 along with its 2023 musical lineup, most of the reaction on social media focused on the usual debates over the choice of bands. Others criticized the loss of the fireworks show, the elimination of the south stage and the rising ticket costs.
Another segment, mainly longtime SunFest veterans, is lamenting the loss of the art.
Will the visual arts booths, fireworks and 5K race return in 2024?
“We use the words ‘on hold’ purposely,’’ Jamieson said. “We have to see what happens this year.’’
While some festival veterans understand SunFest's need to make adjustments, they also say the changes for this year's event, especially the elimination of the art booths, will probably discourage many people from attending.
“Without the art show, the quality of the whole experience gets diminished,’’ said artist Susan Painter, a West Palm Beach native who sold sculptures at SunFest for 15 years until the early 2000s.
Painter was part of the 1990s heyday of juried SunFest art exhibits when as many as 500 artists from around the United States applied for 170 booths, for which chosen artists had to rent in the neighborhood of $500 each.
In those days, TV promotions called SunFest “the largest arts and musical festival in South Florida.’’ Artists competed to have their work featured on popular SunFest commemorative posters (from 1988 until about 2015).
By the 2000s, though, the quality of festival art changed to include more commercial products like leather goods, Painter said.
At the same time, the genre of musical acts was changing from jazz and classic rock to modern rock, punk and rap.
The SunFest crowd got younger and younger. “And those people were not interested in the art,'' Painter said. "They came for the music.''
Over the years, she said, more and more visual artists dropped out.
“I know I dropped out because I used to make a lot of nice sales at that show and that went down to nothing. It wasn't worth the entry fee,’’ she said.
By 2017, the number of art booths dwindled to 120, roughly the same number of artists who applied. The pandemic caused many artists to drop out of not just SunFest but all arts festivals across the United States.
‘'I've seen a very long, slow intentional gut of the art over the years. I don’t think it's anything overnight,’’ Painter said.
“It is a shame the art show is gone, but I'd say for all intents and purposes the art show has been gone for longer than that.''
A recent informal survey of community leaders gave mixed reviews to the changes for SunFest 2023. More than 60 percent of the Power Poll Palm Beach influencers who responded to the unscientific survey expressed some level of disappointment with the loss of the art booths and fireworks.
But nearly half of the influencers who responded said the changes won’t affect their decision to go to SunFest. The musical acts will determine which days, if any, they will attend, they said.
SunFest has been an evolving work-in-progress since it was first held in 1983. That year, admission was free to what at the time was a 10-day event. A featured performer was Carla Wallenda of the famous tightrope-walking family, who tiptoed across a high-wire 70 feet high.
But it quickly grew. Its evolution into what will be the festival’s first music-only event this year was driven by what patrons want from SunFest, Jamieson said, citing data from surveys.
Another consideration was the fact that other nearby communities were hosting the same kinds of popular events SunFest offered — from the ArtisGras arts festival in Palm Beach Gardens and Artfest by the Sea in Juno Beach to the Fourth on Flagler fireworks show in downtown West Palm Beach on July 4.
“We have an obligation to keep this festival as vibrant as it always has been and sometimes staying vibrant and relative means you have to forgo some tradition,’’ Jamieson said.
The non-profit festival brought in $9.2 million in 2022, while spending $7.4 million, according to an audit in ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer. The revenue includes $3.7 million of covid government relief funds, organizers said, adding that the festival would have run a deficit without those funds.
SunFest will spend 15 percent more than last year on musical talent with fewer headline acts, a strategy organizers believe will improve the overall quality of the event.
“We decided our lane was music and we decided to stay in our lane,’’ Jamieson said.
And that decision, he said, was not made lightly.
“This year might be a little more drastic but I would argue it's probably overdue,’’ he said.
“The idea of not having a south stage and the idea even of not having an art show are ideas that have floated around for a dozen years,’’ he said. “We weren't going to have fireworks in 2020, but most people don’t realize that because that year got canceled.’’
Perhaps the most significant blow will be felt by the local up-and-coming visual artists who looked forward to SunFest as a way to showcase their work to a wider audience.
With help from the non-profit No More Starving Artists Foundation, SunFest for the past three years opened part of Flagler Drive to an arts village that included muralists and glass blowers and an arts section for kids.
“It's unfortunate,’’ said Trina Slade-Burks, the group’s president. “Artists are not going to have an opportunity to have their work there be seen by people who wouldn't normally see their work.’’
There will be some forms of art at SunFest 2023 — three community art activation murals, each 6 feet high by 16 feet wide. The murals will be located between Fern and South Clematis streets near the Intracoastal Waterway seawall. SunFest will have the lines of the art already there, like a coloring book, and local artists will help the public paint in the different sections of the mural.
Jamieson said he respects the passion of longtime SunFest goers who considered the visual arts and fireworks as important as the music.
“Choosing to put the art show on hold and the fireworks on hold, even the 5K, they were not easy decisions for us. But when you try to be as objective as you can about them, they stopped making business sense,’’ he said.
“I know people are upset. I 100-percent get it. But I would be irresponsible in the commitment I have to our organization to not look at other options that might be better for us in the long run. We've always done that.’’
Still, the changes will cause SunFest’s demographics to shift further, as some veteran attendees may object to paying more for less.
“Without the art, it’s like, meh, I don't need to go. I don't need to spend $70 to get in,’’ Baker Hughes said. “It’s too bad because it was always a fun time.’’
(Editor's note: Joe Capozzi is the Power Poll Palm Beach correspondent)
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.