For 60 years, Art in the Park has transformed Stephens Lake Park into a creative carnival. Filled with hundreds of tents and thousands of attendees, the festival, run by the nonprofit Columbia Art League, strives to bring awareness of art to the local community. But behind every big event is a hardworking team that puts everything together. The Columbia Art League staff consists of a small group — Karen Shortt-Stout, education director, Louise Sarver, operations manager and Holly Stitt, interim executive director. Together the trio, along with a 13-member steering committee, does whatever it takes to ensure this year’s Diamond Jubilee Art in the Park comes alive June 2 and 3.

Leading a team

It’s not easy for a tiny team to take on an enormous event, but with the steering committee, Shortt-Stout, Sarver and Stitt can make the seemingly impossible possible. In February they have their first meeting. It’s a process that many on the committee have done for years; some have even been on the team for to years. “We’re really lucky to have an experienced steering committee that really knows their jobs,” Sarver says.

Although some work in teams, each member of the committee is in charge of a specific aspect of the event. While the steering committee controls parts such as the artists dinner, artist hospitality, load-in and load-out procedures and volunteer coordination, the CAL staff oversees it all, including choosing the artists.

The process for Sarver started in late summer. During that time she rewrites the artist application, preparing it to be opened November 1. Applications are open to anyone across the country, and after they closed in February, around 250 artists applied. That’s when the fun begins. Back at the Columbia Art League, a jury of five to seven art professionals score the pieces sent in by artists. After multiple rounds, the top 110 artists are offered an invitation to the event.

Trying something new

Every year CAL implements something fresh to the long-running festival. This year, there will be a Veterans' Art Pavilion that will feature works by veteran artists. The idea came from Shortt-Stout a year ago. CAL already has a program at the VA hospital, where an art teacher comes twice a month to help with the Veterans Integration Program. With that connection, and Shortt-Stout’s knowledge of the Veterans United Foundation, CAL sent a proposal early this year to the foundation to help them with the pavilion.

Shortt-Stout says the choosing process is similar to how they pick the other artists featured at the event. After the application closes, a group of other veteran artists choose the top pieces. For its first year, the Pavilion will exhibit art from 13 veterans. “The work that we’ve seen is phenomenal,” Shortt-Stout says. “It’s really high quality.”

Continuing a legacy

Like Roots N Blues and the True/False Film Festival, Art in the Park has become a staple in the Columbia Community. The best part about it all? The event is free to attend, which means it’s accessible to everyone. “It's definitely our gift to the community as a free festival,” Sarver says. “We really pride ourselves on being a free festival, and we want to keep it that way."

For CAL, Art in the Park is its biggest fundraiser of the year, but the nonprofit still has to seek outside help to cover the costs. Some of the funds come from government grants from the City of Columbia, the Missouri Art Council and the Conventions and Visitors Bureau. Other expenses are paid for with the help of corporate sponsors. Individuals and families can donate through the Partners in the Park program. Still, Shortt-Stout says their net profit isn’t as much as one might expect. “We're always looking for ways to make this a more sustainable event,” she says.

With 60 years of growth, the staff of CAL hope that Art in the Park will continue to expand. In the future, Shortt-Stout says she’d like to have a kick-off event on Friday. She envisions Art in the Park becoming similar to True/False with more help from downtown businesses, collaborations from other galleries and other surrounding events.

But the staff doesn’t ignore all the success Art in the Park has had so far. “What you put into it is what you get out of it,” Sarver says. “Seeing all the connections that everyone ends up making to Columbia and Art in the Park is really special. It makes me feel like we are putting on more than just an event, that we really are encouraging people to engage with art and engage with us and make that connection."

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