Wickford Fine Arts Festival

Festivals, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on November 19, 2000

At 4:30 a.m., sunlight has yet to trickle into Wickford Cove on Narragansett Bay. But shellfishermen are already at Town Dock readying their skiffs for the morning’s work. Summer or winter, it makes no difference. If fishing is good, they’ll be back before 10 a.m. to unload their catch.

Along Wickford’s Main Street, ancient homes and lichen-encrusted trees crowd a tilting sidewalk. Some houses are more than 200 years old but are as impressive in their age as they were in their youth. Historical markers on the front of each whisper of the longevity of this place: William Hammond, 1798; Daniel Woll, 1802; Potter-Dean, 1773. Around the corner along commercial Main Street, Wickford families ply their trades in businesses founded by grandfathers or great-grandfathers.

Fishing and a reverence for history have long dominated this unspoiled communitya village, really, within the town of North Kingstown (pop. 3,000). But more recently, a different relationship has evolved. Wickford is now synonymous with artits annual Arts Festival drawing fine artists from around the globe on a July weekend to exhibit work along streets rich in history.

The festival began in 1962 when artist John Huszar, frustrated over a lack of sales, hung his paintings on a fence along the sidewalk. Today, the annual event has mushroomed into a showcase for the work of some 250 artists. But the road the festival has traveled to a successful symbiosis with the town has not been without potholes.

“By the late ’70s or early ’80s, the success of the festival was almost its ruin,” says Wayne McCarthy, a lifelong resident and photographer who has helped mold the event into what it is today.

The number of exhibitors had grown to more than 400, displaying everything from fine art to crafts in a hodgepodge of tents that made travel around the narrow village streets difficult. In the evening, the noise from artists setting up their tents would invade the homes of downtown residents. Add to that a crowd of 80,000-100,000 visitors in a 48-hour period and, at least for Wickford residents, the event began to resemble a siege rather than a festival.

Not only was the peace of this normally quiet village disrupted, but so was local traffic. Owners of a grocery store, a more than 100-year-old business, opted to take their vacations during festival time.

“It just grew to the point that it was out of hand,” recalls Paul Wilson, who operates a clothing store founded by his father in the 1940s.

Cindy Nelson, president of the Wickford Art Association, which sponsors the event, agrees. “It was unlimited and became unmanageable,” she says. “Everyone was complaining.”

Up stepped a handful of locals who volunteered to organize the event.

“Until then it was run by people who were in town for two or three days and wouldn’t be back for another year,” says McCarthy. “We figured if you’ve got people in charge who are always running into people in church or downtown, they’re going to want to do the job right.”

In a forum held in a Wickford church, locals voiced their concerns: how would fire trucks navigate the tent-clogged intersections, what should be done about noise late at night or early in the morning, what about congestion, disorderliness? Armed with suggestions, the new organizers went to work.

A 250-booth limit was established and only fine art, selected by a jury, could be displayed. Exhibitors couldn’t set up their 10-by-10-foot tents before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. A new tent plan left intersections free so fire trucks could turn easily. And, says McCarthy, who has been director for the past two years, a tone of “No Foolishness Allowed” was established.

What has emerged is a streamlined festival that has not only been ranked 21st in the country by national festival magazine, Sunshine Artist, but also has preserved the tranquility of the village. Now it generates funds for local causes. Cars are relegated to outlying lots where donations collected by Rotarians fund charities. Proceeds from the now-famous lobster-roll and strawberry shortcake booths run by local churches go toward local causes. Art Association earnings have built a new gallery in the village and each year funds four scholarships to local students enrolled in an art curriculum. Those students exhibit in the festival and get visibility.

“I’d definitely say the festival gives back to the community,” says town manager Rich Kerbel. “Some merchants may not get more business during the festival, but they get visibility. People come back. That kind of advertising is hard to get.”