The Life of the Arts: The UofC’s FOTA brings its annual springtime arts festival back to campus

During the academic year, the quadrangles at the University of Chicago bustle with a certain kind of activity–students lope to class, activists hand out flyers, and club members sell Chinese buns for a charitable cause. But for ten days in May, the quad becomes something else entirely; they become a gallery for student art of all kinds. The annual Festival of the Arts (FOTA), first established in 1963, has undergone a renaissance of sorts in recent years. And this year is no exception. For the first time, FOTA has made a distinct effort to offer year-round programs, ensuring that student art is not something that appears on campus only once a year. But this new effort does not distract attention from FOTA’s springtime festival, which still continues to make art bloom across the quad.

The FOTA Kick-Off Party on Saturday night was as lively as ever, with attendees filling up a large tent on Hutchinson Commons. The ambiance of the event was as posh as student events get: students milled around the tent, eating gigantic cupcakes and sipping wine. The show featured dozens of models, a huge sound system, and plenty of innovative fashion, including lamé, plastic capes, and huge, theatrical gowns. Head curator Zoe Samels writes, “Many people complain about the dearth of opportunities to make art, see art, or exhibit completed pieces on campus if you aren’t a [visual arts] major, and this is the gap that FOTA is trying to fill. The fashion show is just one of the ways FOTA expands the traditional concept of ‘art’ on campus.”

At the UofC, where everything is approached interdisciplinarily, art is never just something to see; it is something to wear, participate in, interact with, and hear. This week, installations dot the Main Quad: Daniel Sefik’s “Random Acts of Musical Theatre” and Christopher Aque’s performative work in a house constructed out of felt are visible behind the C-Bench outside Cobb Hall. Another curator, Courtney Stone, notes that “the [FOTA] Board chose to fund works that had a high level of visibility and interactivity. They allow all students to participate, even non-artistic ones.” Samels adds, “We try and collaborate with other student groups who address more specific art forms – fashion, writing, poetry – whether it be funding a project of theirs or co-organizing an event.” This collaborative factor is important in organizing a successful festival–high attendance, word of mouth, and engaged participation play a crucial role.

The tent in Hutchinson Courtyard is one of the most visible venues FOTA has on campus this year, hosting events throughout the week: the Sliced Bread literary magazine release party, the Department of Visual Arts Senior Showcase, and the final FOTA open mic of the year. The open mic program is one of the ways this year’s curators expanded their program, involving students in art through all seasons. Stone remarks that “FOTA hopes to continue to create more opportunities throughout the year to allow students access to the artistic community on campus non-stop,” and called the open mic program an “extremely popular” event.

One of the problems with any campus arts festival arises from its typically limited involvement with the community outside of campus. FOTA, as a Registered Student Organization of the UofC, directs most of its programming towards the campus community. This problem, however, has been duly recognized by FOTA. Samels observes this problem but points out how, “for the first time, this year we displayed art by community artists in our Winter Art Gallery.” Clearly, the potential of expanding the Festival beyond the University, where it may reach a wider and larger audience continues to be “always a goal for us [FOTA].”

So what does the FOTA Board look for in selected projects? This year’s Festival certainly moves towards more event and performance-oriented pieces. Curator Christopher Shea explains that the most successful works “are those that make strong impressions, and are in very public spaces. Lots of people rush through campus, so I think it’s great if anything catches their eye.” A large festival like FOTA involves critical decision-making, between choosing different works, but Shea believes that the content of the ten day programming ultimately rests on the strongest works proposed. He adds, “Performance pieces are great, but in the future it would be cool to have even more visible visual pieces up throughout the week on the quads.”

As FOTA grows and finds its footing, art on campus can grow with it. Samels explains that the Festival attempts “to highlight the ‘life of the arts’ that exists on this campus, which is less visible but just as important as the ‘life of the mind’ to many students.” By making what is hidden more visible, FOTA expands the UofC’s perception of what is important to appreciate–in springtime, or at any time.