Photo courtesy of the City of Bellevue
                                Promo photo for this year’s event.

Photo courtesy of the City of Bellevue Promo photo for this year’s event.

Downtown Bellevue’s Bellwether artfest expanding its scope for 2019

The free 10-day event begins on Sept. 13.

“Our diversity is our strength” reads the second line of the Bellevue City Council’s vision statement.

At this year’s edition of Bellwether artfest, a free and publicly accessible 10-day event that began in 1992, the sentiment is reflected by the theme. For the 2019 rebirth, it’s “Taking Root,” which explores cultural exchange and identity in Bellevue.

This year’s Bellwether — Sept. 13-22, guided by the Bellevue Arts Commission — includes the work of more than 40 local multidisciplinary artists. The curators of last year’s Bellwether, the Seattle-based SuttonBeresCuller, will be providing creative direction. An expanse of curators, a group which includes Anthony White, SassyBlack and John Boylan, are doing the organizing this time around.

“This exciting shift offers new ways of looking at the history and future of the city from diverse perspectives,” Ben Beres, who is part of SuttonBeresCuller, said in a press release.

While it lasts

The shift, as invoked by Beres, in part is referencing the way the event has changed since its inception 27 years ago, and even since 2018. From its first year until 2016, Bellwether was a biennial indoor-and-outdoor, three-month-long sculpture exhibition.

According to Bellwether 2019’s project manager, Scott MacDonald, who has been involved with mapping out the festival’s events since 2012, the earlier incarnations of Bellwether saw artists submitting mostly made — not site-specific — artwork to a panel made up of arts professionals.

After the panel would deem a certain work worthy of display, it would be exhibited for the duration of the festival downtown.

Soon after Bellwether 2016, the city began considering reimagining Bellevue’s Grand Connection as a cultural corridor. It was then that it was proposed, and then approved, that Bellwether be truncated down to a 10-day event rather than three months.

“You gotta see it while it lasts,” MacDonald said of the new version.

MacDonald said that before the 2018 reincarnation of Bellwether, one of the key tenets focused on for the festival’s reboot was to encourage experimentation, innovation and risk, with an emphasis on diversity, technology and community-building and how they intersected.

Bellwether 2018 was largely centered around the visual arts, mostly because the Bellevue Arts Museum was the main site, according to MacDonald.

The re-calibrated version of Bellwether proved more successful than its predecessors. Whereas previous versions would typically see some 250 people show up to the opening night event, with half of the audience being made up of families and friends and the other half locals, last year saw about 800 attendees.

“I hope that we see similar numbers [this year] because Bellevue Arts Museum was just blown away,” MacDonald said. “To bring that many people into one of Bellevue’s pinnacle art institutions … I think is a huge win.”

This year

Bellwether 2019 has a wider reach than its precursors. In addition to the first floor of the Bellevue Arts Museum being a hub, supplementary sites are showcasing both 2-D and 3-D art, including Bellevue City Hall and Doxa Church. There will also be musical performances — an endeavor supported by the Meydenbauer Center Theatre, who MacDonald said reached out after last year’s event to potentially become a partner.

This is also the first year where multiple events happen on a single day.

“The big new thing this year is just the number of things you can do,” MacDonald said.

Although Bellwether is becoming larger in scope, MacDonald said it’s always a challenge to simply get the word out to the community. He noted that this is a typical problem for city events — with exceptions like the Fourth of July, for instance — which has made it a priority in the months leading up to the festival to advertise effectively.

“How people engage with finding out about things has changed … how they look for things has certainly changed from even six, seven, eight years ago,” MacDonald said.

Still, the reaction from community members in the past has shown that there is a hunger and even need for events like Bellwether artfest.

“We do hear a lot from community members that they are frustrated having to go to Seattle for their cultural offerings,” MacDonald said. “They want to see art where they live. And I think what Bellwether is doing is getting people and artists into Bellevue in a way where they can see that Bellevue is a rich and fertile ground for art and cultural expression. Conversely, we see the community really getting on board with those ideas, and wanting to see that kind of activity, wanting to see that expression, where they live.”

Though MacDonald said he and others behind Bellwether are not necessarily thinking about what next year will involve — they’re still busy finalizing the details of the impending one — 2020 is still an important year for the event. It comes at the end of what MacDonald describes as a three-year “trial period,” which will be followed by a reassessment of what’s worked and what hasn’t for the newly designed take on Bellwether.

Even if certain characteristics might eventually be re-evaluated, what Bellwether helps do — bring the community together to engage with art, whether they enjoy what they’re seeing or not — is important to MacDonald’s eye.

“That’s what’s great about art: you can have those kinds of conversations that can create a foundation of community discussion,” he said.

For more information about Bellwether 2019, go to its website, https://bellwetherartsweek.org/welcome.

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