Welcoming back the Festival of the Arts

A brief history and summary

February begins the Festival of the Arts, a festival that brings together both the Big Rapids and Ferris communities. 

During the month of February, Big Rapids focuses on bringing art workshops and various events to town. When the festival was introduced, it was hosted on and off throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. Eventually, the festival lost its momentum, and it wasn’t reintroduced until 2007.

Originally the festival was designed for the Ferris campus. The festival was popular with those around campus, but it didn’t reach the community like it does today. Due to an economic downturn in the ‘90s, the festival went away.

Bruce Dilg, a retired Ferris architecture professor, was the one to start the process of putting the festival back together. After noticing the community didn’t have the relationship most college towns have, Dilg proposed bringing the festival back for the Big Rapids and Ferris communities in the month of February. This idea was shot down by the board because they thought that it seemed impossible. 

“Everybody said, ‘we can’t do that, it’s too big, it won’t work,’” Dilg said.

After the idea was rejected, Dilg knew he had to get more people on board. He reached out to Dr. Scott Cohen, Ferris’ Chair of the Department of Humanities. Together they were able to represent Ferris. 

Dilg continued by reaching out to Mark Gifford, the current city manager, Ed Mallet, the artistic director of Tuba Bach, and Phil Donahue, the old Ferris director of music, who was involved in the original festival to represent the community. 

From there, Dilg reintroduced his idea. After listening to what he had to say, the group decided they could make the festival happen.

“By February we had scheduled about sixty different events every day of the month in February,” Dilg said. “We had raised $65,000, a very generous amount, of which came from Dr. Eisler, who was just monumental in the success of the festival.”

The rest of the money was raised from the Big Rapids community. Dilg went door-to-door around Big Rapids and asked for donations, believing that the return of the festival would be enough to give back to the community.

Since 2007, the festival has continued to bring together Ferris and the town, besides its brief pause during the pandemic. Since then, it has provided a lot for those living in Big Rapids or visiting in February.

“During the month of February, nobody has the excuse that there’s nothing to do in Big Rapids,” Cohen said. “Because every day there are lots of things to do­ — almost all free.”

The festival focuses on bringing a variety of art for everyone to enjoy. Thanks to the board’s connections, artists from all over are brought to share their work and knowledge at the festival. The overall goal of the Festival of the Arts is to provide the community with a place to go and things to enjoy during the height of winter.

During the month, there are different kinds of events, such as concerts, do-it-yourself workshops and artwork demonstrations. The board likes to add events that are related to the arts in any form, whether it be an open mic night at Crankers Restaurant and Brewery or a school jazz band concert.

“Make a goal to get out during these winter doldrums and try to brighten up your life with some kind of involvement with the arts,” Cohen said. “Any interaction with the arts is an opportunity to enrich your soul and your life.”