April ARTS Festival of Arts and Culture Has Lots of Community Participation
MUSIC AND ART: Princeton artist Marlon “7ove Child” Davila paints one of the upright pianos to be played and displayed during April ARTS, which begins Friday and continues through April 30.
By Anne Levin
If administrators at the Arts Council of Princeton and Princeton University had any doubts about how their plans for a reimagined Communiversity would be received, those doubts were dispelled almost immediately after the festival, renamed April ARTS, was put out to the public.
The idea of replacing a one-day street fair — which had grown to crowds of over 30,000 in recent, pre-pandemic years — with a month-long focused celebration of arts and culture, seems to have hit the right note. The Arts Council’s requests for performers, artists, and upright pianos attracted more donations and participants than expected.
“We did a call to the local community asking for pianos, thinking we’d have five to 10, and we got over 30 offers from people wanting to donate them,” said Arts Council Executive Director Adam Welch. The Princeton Piano Project is a big part of April ARTS, which launches on Friday, April 1 with a “Kick-Off Happy Hour” and live performance at 5:30 p.m. at the Arts Council, 105 Witherspoon Street.
Numerous arts programs are scheduled throughout the month, including Princeton Porchfest, a series of free shows on porches throughout the town on Saturday, April 23. The final event is McCarter Theatre’s Ride the Cyclone — The Musical, on Saturday, April 30 at 8 p.m.
Welch and colleagues settled on seven upright pianos, which have been painted and decorated by artists and are being placed outdoors at various locations including the Dinky train station, 185 Nassau Street, Palmer Square, Hinds Plaza, the Princeton Garden Theatre, and the Arts Council.
“We’re starting with two little concerts at each piano throughout the month,” said Welch. “They’ll be promoted, but sort of spontaneous, and likely on days when the town is relatively busy. The beauty is that in addition to the scheduled players, casual passersby will stop and perform.”
The idea was inspired by similar programs in Hightstown and Brooklyn, N.Y. “You get some people who will ‘chopstick’ it, and then because we’re in Princeton, you’ll get some kids and adults with incredible talents,” Welch said. “But just so none of them sit empty, we will coordinate at least two performances at each piano.”
Requests for porches and similar outdoor spaces to feature bands and musical groups for Princeton Porchfest resulted in 37 submissions. “It was truly heartwarming,” said Welch. “When we launched it, we specifically said we wanted 10 or so. We had reached out to Asbury Park and
Lambertville, where they’d been doing this for years, for advice. We decided to be realistic — this is our first time launching this, so we settled on 11 porches. That’s 60 bands or so, from 12 to 6 p.m.”
Welch was especially touched when Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad (PFARS) offered their location. “We love the idea that they wanted to be a part of it,” he said. “It was a pretty special moment when that application came in.”
Most of the porches are in the central business district. “On advice from those who have done this before, the No. 1 best practice was to cluster,” Welch said. “We’re trying to get people to move around town, in a kind of organic flow. So we chose places that made a lot of sense.”
The planners also met with local police and traffic departments to determine which routes were safest and most visible. No locations are too close to each other, but they are close enough so that in the 15-minute break between sets, people can walk to the furthest one. “We have a handful in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, from PFARS to the former Princeton Packet building,” said Welch. “Also on Birch and Leigh avenues; then here [the Arts Council], 185 Nassau, and four other porches down that way.”
Each location will have five bands playing a 45-minute set. Acoustic, rock, R&B, reggae, and blues are included. “We did get the full spectrum, and lots of a cappella from the [Princeton] University and the high school,” Welch said. The final performance is at the Arts Council, at 5:15 p.m. “We’ll thank everyone and encourage people to go get some dinner at a local restaurant. Come for lunch, stay for the music, and then get dinner.”
Welch has spent a lot of time going through old issues of Town Topics newspaper to learn about how Communiversity, which was launched in 1960 as a collaboration between the Arts Council and the University, has progressed through the years.
“It grew into an enormous street fair that had lost its focus, and its reason for being,” he said. “It had become less focused on art and more on realtors and food vendors. So one of the things the University wanted to do more and more was make sure we stayed true to building community through the arts, and presenting as many opportunities for arts engagement as possible.”
As the idea of a post-pandemic return to Communiversity came into focus, Kristin Appelget, the University’s assistant vice president, community and regional affairs, asked the Arts Council to come up with a creative way to engage the town. “A couple of days later, we pitched the idea of April ARTS,” Welch said. “They agreed. They are our guardian angels and our major sponsors.”
For a full schedule of April ARTS events, visit artscouncilofprinceton.org/aprilarts.