CAL executive director Kelsey Hammond stands in front of a gallery wall

Since 1959, the Columbia Art League’s Art in the Park festival has showcased paintings, sculptures and other stimulating creations from artists across the country. This year’s festival at Stephens Lake Park will be a milestone for Kelsey Hammond, executive director of CAL, Columbia’s oldest art gallery and a nonprofit that provides art education services. After taking the position in 2019, Hammond was tasked with planning the festival for 2020 and 2021— both of which were canceled due to COVID-19. Although this is the third Art in the Park festival Hammond has planned, it’s the first one during her tenure that will be held in person.

Artists apply to showcase their work at the festival, and a jury of five to seven art professionals from the community assess the work. CAL board member Mellodie Wilson, who is also on the festival steering committee, says this process helps distinguish Art in the Park from other art festivals. “I’ve been to a couple (festivals) that didn’t have the same level of criteria for booths,” she says. “I’ve thought, ‘You need someone from Art in the Park to help run this thing!’ ” Wilson says CAL makes an effort to offer art at various price points. “We work really hard to make sure everyone feels comfortable,” she says.

After its two-year hiatus, Art in the Park will return to Stephens Lake Park on June 4 and 5, complete with installations, live music and booths for both collectors and other art enthusiasts. Vox spoke with Hammond about the returning festival, CAL classes and her own experience with the art world.

What are some lasting changes to CAL from the past two years?

Now, all of our classes and gallery shows are in person, but we still keep (the gallery shows) online so that people can see them. Every time we have a new show, I do a walk-through on Facebook where I show the artwork and talk about it. That’s good for our people because some of them are elderly or live farther away. We also started a project called the Art Bus, which brings a bus full of art projects to the neighborhoods where kids have the least resources.

Cutout portrait of Kelsey Hammond

How does Art in the Park help CAL fulfill its mission to provide the community with exciting visual arts experiences?

It’s really important to us that we’re making sure that people appreciate art and understand that it can be a part of their everyday life. At the festival, people can create, appreciate and learn. You can buy your toothbrush holder at Target or find a really cool one at Art in the Park. It gives you a connection to an artist who has studied, learned and made this type of work over and over. You get to be part of their legacy.

Is there a particular festival activity visitors simply must check out?

One of my favorite booths is called the Young Collector’s Tent. It’s a space where the artists who come to show their work donate one or two little artworks for kids to pick out for only $5. Then we encourage the kids to go with their parents and meet the artists to thank them and look at other stuff they’ve made. The artists love it because they get to meet kids and talk to them about artwork. We’re really hoping to instill the value of handmade objects to the youth so that they will also support this really important piece of our culture moving forward.

After working for nonprofit arts organizations around the country, what distinguishes Columbia’s art scene?

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. Coming from a big art center to a smaller town, I was pleasantly surprised by how many people here are deeply engaged in the arts. I’ve met so many amazing artists who are gems. People care about art and support it. To be close to the legacy of this community is a huge honor.

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