The first weekend of every June, Columbia’s Stephens Lake Park is flooded with color — and with people — as it plays host to the Columbia Art League’s Art in the Park festival.
“Art in the Park is just this really beloved event,” said Diana Moxon, CAL’s executive director. “It’s the beginning of summer, it’s colorful, it’s free, you can buy beautiful things, there is stuff for kids to do, there’s fun festival food.”
Now in its 58th year, Art in the Park features 110 artists and craftspeople from across the country — according to Moxon about 65 percent of the artists are from Missouri and another 20 percent are from surrounding states with the remainder coming from anywhere from California to the East coast.
Between 10,000 and 12,000 people attend Art in the Park each year. Moxon said Columbia residents’ enthusiasm for the event — and their willingness to spend money on everything from earrings and mugs to art prints and larger commissions — makes it equally popular with the artists themselves.
“Artists have a huge fondness for us and the people of Columbia. They tell me, ‘This is my favorite festival, it feels like coming home,’ ” she said. “We work hard to make them feel special and welcome, and the people of Columbia do come out and go shopping, they’re interested in the art, they’re curious, they ask questions, they’re engaged.”
Columbia has a long history of supporting the arts, reaching back to the start of the Art League in 1959.
Originally a group of five or six University of Missouri professors who “dabbled in art” and gathered to critique one another’s work, the organization has grown over the years to about 500 members and two full-time employees who run the league’s art gallery downtown.
Of those 500, more than 300 are artists and the remainder are patrons and enthusiasts, Moxon said.
In addition to the free gallery, which is open to the public, the Art League offers a range of classes most week nights, teaching everything from drawing to wax work. It also puts on outreach classes at the Columbia Public Library, Woodhaven (a community for individuals with disabilities), Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital and Rainbow House (a child advocacy center and emergency shelter). Other initiatives include summer camps for children and teens and the Community Exhibits Program, which places original work from local artists in public buildings and businesses.
Moxon said Columbia produces a lot of art for a small city, noting that propensity naturally “begets more art.” The Art League itself has spun off a number of arts groups and organizations, including Access Arts — which has a mission to provide creative learning experiences to everyone, especially those who are underserved — and the Columbia Entertainment Company — one of several community theaters in Columbia.
Noting the dedication of the league’s original members — some of whom “gave their lives to it” — Moxon said CAL inspires a cadre of volunteers who help spread its mission of providing an environment for the community to “experience the visual arts through exhibitions, education, appreciation, promotion and creation of art.”
More than 200 volunteers help put on Art in the Park every year, and volunteers help at the gallery five days a week.
“It’s a lot of people who make the whole thing work,” Moxon said. “The city has a great sense of volunteerism.”