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Ithaca Festival returns after hiatus to ‘celebrate the artist in everyone’

Gunpoets 2019 IF.jpeg
Jim Catalano
Gunpoets perform at the 2019 Ithaca Festival

After a pandemic-induced hiatus, the Ithaca Festival will return for the first time since 2019. Kicking off with the traditional parade on Thursday night, the festival will feature dozens of local bands and other artists performing around the Ithaca Commons, along with the usual array of food, arts and crafts, and family-friendly activities throughout the weekend.

“After everything the world has been through over the last couple years, it feels so good to finally be getting back to normal,” said Dan Lisbe of Gunpoets, who will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Bernie Milton Pavilion. “Like they say, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Ithaca Festival means so much to this community. Music. Food. Culture. Everything. To go without it for the last couple years was pretty surreal. We’re so excited to jump on that stage and rock with our people again. It’s been a long time coming.”

Indeed, “Together Again!” is this year’s Ithaca Festival theme, an appropriate motto given the event’s ability to draw a wide range of attendees from around Tompkins County and beyond. But according to festival director Selena Hodom, it wasn’t until three months ago that the festival board (it’s a nonprofit organization that runs it) decided to go ahead with this year’s event.

“There was a COVID surge in the winter, so we decided to wait and see,” she said. “Obviously we wanted to do it as safely as possible for the community. It was around the beginning of March that we decided to go ahead, but that meant all the planning we would do over the winter was condensed into a very short time period. But we’re pulling it together, and I think it’s going to be very good. I'm excited about it and I know the community is very excited, too.”

Of course, the late start meant that some of the nonprofit groups and other organizations that participate in or sponsor the festival were not able to commit to returning for this year’s event. And the rising costs of just about everything added an additional challenge for the organizers. Still, those who have attended the Ithaca Festival in the past will be heartened to see that almost all of its traditional hallmarks are back, and the familiar festival footprint (with some blocks closed off to traffic) around The Commons remains intact. The one main difference for this year is that there will be no stage in the Press Bay Alley parking lot.

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Ithaca Festival
The 2022 Ithaca Festival schedule

Coming Together

Founded in 1977 with the mission to “celebrate the artist in everyone,” the Ithaca Festival has long provided a place for the community to come together – something that’s needed more than ever.

“Our sense of community and our ability to gather – I think that's something everyone has missed during the pandemic,” said Hodom, who took over as festival director right before the pandemic started in March 2020. “People have felt disconnected from everything. But things like this help provide that human connection. And so oftentimes the catalyst is music and the arts in general. I think it helps us to understand each other a little bit more, which is important, especially in the times we're in.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Maddy Walsh, who will perform with The Blind Spots at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Bernie Milton Pavilion

“During a time so many people are raging and grieving in response to two devastating mass shootings in a row, the most accessible and immediate remedy I can think of is to gather in community, especially to celebrate and witness music and art,” said Walsh. “Ithaca is a unique place whose collective empathy is an overarching character identifier of the people who settle here; many of us are feeling the weight of the world in these post- / ongoing-pandemic times as senseless, preventable violence continues to wreak havoc on communities throughout our country, in Ukraine, and beyond.

“I wrote the words ‘We exist for each other’ into the song ‘In the Tunnel’ on one of the two records I released last year,” she continued, “and in spite of the most obvious pain we cause each other, I still believe that to be true—healing and reclaiming joy are most possible when people come together, and I can’t wait to bring a big dose of love to my hometown community to close out the festival on Sunday evening.”

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Jim Catalano
Maddy Walsh performs with The Blind Spots at the 2017 Ithaca Festival.

Fun Facts

Here are a few more things you need to know about this year’s festival:

• The festival parade will once again take place on North Cayuga Street beginning at 6 p.m. Thursday, with more than 70 community groups marching from Jay Street to Buffalo Street toward downtown. Note: there’s no Festival Mile race this year, but there is a post-parade concert on the Commons, as The Comb Down brings its fiery funk grooves to the Bernie Milton Pavilion at 8-10 p.m.

• Performances will take place from noon to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday (followed by the Silent Disco; see below), and from noon to 9 p.m. Sunday at the Bernie Milton Pavilion, with 23 bands playing throughout the weekend. Among those scheduled to perform are Tru Bleu, Freight, PapaMuse, Spacetrain (marking the release of its new album, "Singularity"), the 86ers, Kitestring, Alan Rose and the Restless Elements, Metasequoia, Stone Cold Miracle, Dean’s Kids, and many more. See the full schedule here.

• There will also be performances in Dewitt Park throughout the weekend, with the new Sound on Sound mobile stage offering a better setting for the dance groups, puppet troupes, comedians, and acoustic performers. And on the Commons itself, buskers will perform at the Trolley Circle in front of Center Ithaca and at Cayuga Street Circle at various times throughout the festival.

• The Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) is marking its 50th anniversary this year, and will be providing programming for the Family Fun Zone from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, and will be offering kids’ crafts, face painting, games, and more.

• The Silent Disco will return to the Bernie Milton Pavilion from 10 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday nights, with several local DJs spinning tunes simultaneously. It’s open to all ages; it’s free to rent the headphones, but you need to provide an ID. Here’s the DJ schedule: 10-11 p.m. Friday: DJ Tuggle, DJ BrianTech, and DJ Mike Judah; 11 p.m. to 12 a.m. Friday: The Dutchess , DJ Rockmon, and DJ Anthony Green; 10-11 p.m. Saturday: Proper Philth, DJ Evo Evolution, and DJ Shaykey; 11 p.m. to 12 a.m. Saturday: DJ Evermix, DJ Double A, and DJ Split Image.

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Heather Williams
Heather Williams created the winning entry in this year's Ithaca Festival art competition.

• This year’s Ithaca Festival artist is Heather Williams, who created the colorful image that will adorn festival merchandise. “There were more than 20 submissions for the festival art competition, and we felt that her image with the hands, the waterfall, and all the other elements really represented the festival,” said Hodom. “Even if it's a busier design than we've had in the past, it does encompass the entire festival and the feeling of being together that we wanted to create with the theme – it’s just a fun way to look at it.”

• There’s no admission fee for the Ithaca Festival, but you can buy a festival button for $5 to help support the event. They’re available from the jester-hat-sporting volunteers roaming throughout the festival as well as the merchandise booths. “It’s a $5 donation that'll help support the programming, as are the t-shirts and the other merch that we put out,” Hodom said, adding that it’s also important to support the participating food and crafts vendors. Once you have your button, you can register here to enter a raffle to win a grand prize.

• The festival is still looking for volunteers to sell merchandise and assist in other ways throughout the weekend. “We do we absolutely need volunteers for the button brigade – folks to go around and sell buttons – as well as at the Silent Disco, and the merch booths,” Hodom said. “Anyone really could jump in and have a quick training and be able to do it, which is fun and a good way to support the whole event.” You can find out more and sign up to volunteer here.

If You Go

What: Ithaca Festival of the Arts

When: Thursday-Sunday

Where: Downtown Ithaca

Cost: free to attend


Gunpoets Ithaca Festival.jpeg
Jim Catalano
Gunpoets perform at the 2018 Ithaca Festival.

Jim Catalano covers the Finger Lakes music scene for WITH (90.1 FM in Ithaca, WITHradio.org) and its affiliates.