Summer is almost over, but there’s still time for one of the season’s signature Salt Lake events. After being cancelled in 2020, the Utah Arts Festival is returning for 2021. “We’re really excited to be able to be back in action,” says Executive Director Aimée Dunsmore. 

Children paint at 2019 Utah Arts Festival
2019 Utah Arts Festival in Salt Lake City. Photo: Jeff Swinger/SwingmanPhoto; Courtesy Utah Arts Festival

Dunsmore, who has worked behind-the-scenes on 12 Utah Arts Festivals, started her new position last October. She has overseen an often uncertain planning process after the Festival was cancelled for the first time ever last summer. Dunsmore says that many artists told her they were excited to return for in-person events and performances, especially as many working artists still rely on these types of events for income. “The pandemic definitely hit them hard,” she says. Staff, volunteers and attendees are also looking forward to this Utah tradition. “There’s really nothing that can replace the energy of being [at the festival] in person,” Dunsmore says. 

Just a couple of months ago, a normal Festival seemed within reach as vaccination rates increased and COVID-19 case numbers shrunk dramatically. Now, as the Delta variant surge reminds everyone that the pandemic is far from over, hosting a large event is suddenly much more complicated. “We’d all hoped that it would be a little bit different by now,” Dunsmore admits. While it’s hard to predict exact numbers, she expects that attendance will be down compared to a typical year. Masks will be required in the Salt Lake Library and The Leonardo, both city-owned buildings. Outside, masks are not required but encouraged, especially for unvaccinated visitors. Booths will be placed 10 feet apart to encourage physical distancing. There will even be a free vaccination site outside The Leonardo. A week before the Festival, Dunsmore expresses a mix of cautious optimism and “a little bit of trepidation” that, for many of us, defines this stage of the pandemic. Still, Dunsmore is confident about one thing: the art. “I’m really excited about the programming,” she says. “I think it’s as good as ever.”

Aerial photo of crowds at Utah Arts Festival
2019 Utah Arts Festival in Salt Lake City. Photo: Jeff Swinger/SwingmanPhoto; Courtesy Utah Arts Festival

2020 also inspired another change: the hiring of a community and inclusion coordinator. Artist Sarah May will fill this newly created position and lead UAF’s equity, diversity and accessibility efforts. This year, May worked to hire literary artists and musicians of color, and UAF plans to further diversify staff, coordinators and artists into 2022. (Dunsmore says that most programming this year was renewed from cancelled contracts in 2020.) UAF is also building partnerships with other community organizations: Artes de México, Utah Black Artists Collective and YWCA Utah’s Woke Words program.

This year’s programming features hundreds of musicians, dancers, writers, visual artists, filmmakers and more. For the first time, UAF and KRCL will host a Friday Soul Party. Headlined by The Nth Power and Utah-based Will Baxter Band, the concert will highlight both local and national soul musicians. Other headlining musicians include Black Fang, Las Cafeteras, Pixie & The Partygrass Boys and Jeff Crosby & The Refugees. The Fear No Film Festival features short films from filmmakers across the globe. The artist marketplace features a wide variety of mediums, from painting to jewelry to wood and metal work. Hands-on experiences include the kid-focused Creative Zone and the collaborative mural project 100 Artists/1 Image. UAF will also honor recipients of the Mayor’s Artist Awards, awarded by the Salt Lake City Arts Council and the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office. This year’s winners are the Mestizo Institute of Culture and Arts, former UAF Director Lisa Sewell, the nonprofit Framework Arts, writer Paisley Rekdal and children’s book publisher Dallas Graham.


UAF will be held from Aug. 27-29 at Library Square. Tickets are available on their website. Read more stories about art in Utah.