MAURY THOMPSON Special for The Post Star
The rainy date planned for the first Lower Adiondack Regional Arts Council Festival in 1972, just in case, was not needed.
“It was one of the better days in June”, The Post Star edited on June 24th of the festival held last Saturday at City Park, Maple Street and First National Bank at Glen Street.
Not only the weather was praiseworthy.
“The objects were varied and interesting and the talent surprising. And so the first annual Glens Falls Downtown Arts Festival must be considered a success,” the editorial suggested. “The committee of the Lower Adirondack Regional Arts Council … may now bow.”
The metaphorical bow wasn’t the end of the show, but the beginning of a long-standing tradition.
Fifty years later, this weekend, the 51st annual LARAC Arts Festival, now a two-day event, continues not only in its original role of promoting the arts in Counties Warren and Washington, but also as a major tourism magnet.
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The festival takes place in City Park every year except in 2020 when it was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The annual festival is just one aspect of LARAC’s mission to support local artists by helping them develop the entrepreneurial aspect of their art careers, operate a gallery and gift shop, administer government art grants, and foster community among artists.
The LARAC Arts Festival, now a regional brand, is an example of how a genuine grassroots movement has become a beloved local tradition that residents and visitors can enjoy – all for the price of a “walk through the park,” said Patricia Joyce, LARAC Managing Director from 1983 to 2006.
“It’s so wonderful and satisfying for me to see something like this continue – not just continue, but become an established tradition,” said Robert Kafin, a LARAC founding board member and chairman of the first LARAC arts festival. “It’s so beautiful to let a child grow up, in a way.”
LARAC came about when Kafin, a lawyer, moved from New York City to Glens Falls in the spring of 1971, where he was active in an organization called Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, a group that provided non-remunerated legal services to arts organizations, Kafin said recently in a telephone interview.
In Glens Falls he founded an upstate version of the New York City Lawyers’ Association.
A few months later, Kafin was invited to a meeting at Sunny Buchman’s home to discuss an attempt to find a new venue for performances of the Lake George Opera Festival, now known as Opera Saratoga.
Those attending the meeting recognized that there was a greater need to unite local arts organizations around a common vision and to promote the arts.
“This (an arts council) was an idea that had long been debated and joked about among the arts and cultural workers in the community,” Joyce said.
The organization was incorporated in March 1972 with membership dues of $2 for individuals and $10 for organizations. The Post Star reported March 27, 1972.
LARAC’s mission, as stated in its charter, was:
- “To coordinate, develop, sponsor, enhance, encourage and promote artistic and other cultural activities in the Lower Adirondack region;
- “To provide a central organization for the fullest development and utilization not only of many existing groups and functions, but also for the introduction of new concepts within the whole field of arts education;
- “Development of a coordinating center of activity for the wide variety of arts represented in this field.”
The Fort Edward Arts Center, the Glens Falls Historical Association, and the Glens Falls Operetta Club, now Glens Falls Community Theatre, were founding members of the organization.
Other arts organizations with representatives on a steering committee included the deBlasiis Chamber Music Series, The Hyde Collection art museum, the Lake George Opera Festival, the Shutterbug Camera Club and the Glens Falls Ballet Center.
Buchman was founding president and remained active at LARAC for many years.
Other founding members were Kafin, Attorney Wayne Judge of Glens Falls and Mrs. George Pugh of Argyle.
“It was exciting,” Judge said in a recent phone interview. “Oh, it was so much fun.”
Others involved in the early organization of LARAC were Sister Dominica Joseph, music teacher at St Mary’s Academy; Joan Aronson, theater director at Glens Falls Operetta Club; and Mort Raych, a local music teacher who was also curator of the Hyde Collection, Joyce said.
The June Arts Festival, LARAC’s first event, was based on the concept of the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit in Greenwich Village in New York City, a biannual outdoor arts festival that dates back to the Depression.
“I looked at Stadtpark and said, ‘What a great place to hold an arts festival,'” Kafin recalled.
Kafin tells The Post Star 1972 that the festival would be a means and not an end in itself.
“By bringing attention to the arts in the Lower Adirondacks region for a weekend, we hope to draw attention to our local cultural attractions,” he said at the time.
To maximize exposure, Glens Falls Mayor at the time, Robert Cronin, proclaimed Glens Falls an “Art Week” from June 17-23.
The arts festival at City Park and Maple Street adjacent to the park was coupled with a day-long exhibition at the First National Bank on Glen Street featuring 17 paintings on loan from the Midtown Galleries in New York City.
The exhibition included works by Edward Betts, Israel Bishop, Charles Coiner, Robert Sivard, William Thon and Zolton Sepeshy.
The Frame Coffee House in Fort Edward, the Fort Edward Arts Center and the Hyde Collection held open houses.
The organizers set themselves the target of 50 exhibitors for the Stadtparkfest, a target that was exceeded.
“The growing interest in today’s Glens Falls Downtown Arts Festival has taken the number of participating artists to over 75,” The Post Star reported June 11, 1972.
Artists and craftsmen came from as far away as Vermont, New Hampshire, and Philadelphia.
Entertainment included performers from The Frame Coffee House, Essence Mime Theatre, Glens Falls Ballet Center, Lake George Opera Festival and Glens Falls Operetta Club.
About 120 exhibitors are taking part in this weekend’s festival, said Phil Casabona, managing director of LARAC.
LARAC is gradually building back up to the pre-pandemic level of 165 exhibitors, he said. The 2021 festival had 90 exhibitors.
The June arts festival and a smaller winter arts festival bring in approximately $80,000 annually to LARAC’s operating budget.
Despite setbacks during the pandemic, LARAC stands on firm foundations to continue its mission into the next half-century, Casabona said.
“We build on things we do well,” he said.
Last year, LARAC distributed $83,000 in grants from the New York State Council for the Arts to artists and organizations in Warren, Washington and North Saratoga counties.
He expects even more this year, but can’t say for sure.
Casabona said he had some ideas for new programs but could not discuss them until the State Arts Council approves them.
“We’re trying to be creative now,” he said.
LARAC has about 200 members and annual membership starts at $25.
Maury Thompson was a Poststar Reporter for 21 years before retiring in 2017. Today he is a freelance historian and documentary film producer, regularly researching historical newspapers in the region.