written by erin coggins
Panoply. That word evokes so much to so many. To organizers it means rewarding, hard work. To local meteorologists it means forecasting sunny skies. To visitors it means fun in Big Spring Park. And to the city it’s uniquely Huntsville.
In actuality, the word Panoply is defined as a complete and impressive collection of things or a magnificent array of arts. In fact, the naming of the yearly art event was found in Webster’s Dictionary when members of the Junior League of Huntsville were looking to present an art event 41 years ago.
“The Junior League was working on arts education and local arts and they were like, we need an art festival. They thought a festival was the right way to approach arts education. If you celebrate the arts, then you can give kids an opportunity to interact with the arts,” Arts Council Executive Director, Allison Dillon-Jauken said. “They were actually sitting in one of the committee chair’s homes when they named it. And that is how Panoply was born.”
After the birth of the project, the Junior League turned it over to The Arts Council, Inc., a non-profit organization now known as Arts Huntsville. Today, Panoply is one of the longest running community festivals in the country. Last year, 78,000 visitors took to Big Spring Park to enjoy Panoply.
“We know the festival has grown in numbers yearly. We don’t know how many came to the first Panoply, but we do have videos of that first year,” Dillon-Jauken said. “Panoply has been noted by the Southeast Tourism Association and it’s won awards at the state level and with Alabama tourism.”
Dillon-Jauken has served as executive director since 2009, but 2010 was her first official Panoply. She had a five-year-old at the time and now he is 13-years-old.
“So truly my child has grown up at this festival and I’ve got to experience it through his eyes from those face painting days to student art, to all the interactives to now. Now he’s a full-time volunteer,” Dillon-Jauken said. “And he’s one of those people who asks, when is Panoply coming?”
People like Dillon-Jauken’s son are what she says makes Panoply work. Over 100 volunteers work during the April weekend of the festival. Many have volunteered for years, including the Arts Council Communications and Special Projects Manager, Amy Jones.
“I moved to Huntsville in 1995 and I started volunteering in 1998 and I loved it so much. I thought how in the world can I be involved in this? Then I was a member of the Junior League for many years and they support Panoply,” Jones said. “I was able to sort of have a more formal path to volunteering.”
Smith went from a regular volunteer to chairing a committee which she says allowed her to elevate her volunteer status. Absolutely loving it, Smith went into a leadership position and now, she is in her first year as an actual Arts Council employee.
“Speaking from being a volunteer, it just takes your time and willingness to be a part of something special in Huntsville,” Jones said. “Volunteer shifts can be just a few hours, or you can come and be with us all weekend.”
From face painting, to taking up tickets, the volunteer opportunities are endless. To be ready for April 28, volunteers have met monthly, pulling together supplies, scheduling volunteers and doing all the logistical work needed to be ready for opening night.
“This is not something we put together in two to three months,” Jones said. “And then during the week of Panoply, you will see volunteers in the park every day from 7 a.m. on to make this thing happen. They are the true stars of the festival.”
As with every Panoply before, the Arts Council staff began work on this year’s Panoply the day after the tents came down last year. This year’s festival will see something old return. In 2017, the festival featured a community art installation called Unity. The project was developed by a national artist and then picked up by communities to complete it locally. Again, this year’s large installation will be interactive.
“Participants will get to share with the community who they are and what their background is,” Dillion-Jauken said. “You take that and you weave it with everybody else’s background and beliefs in the community. And it becomes this living public art installation. Our friends from Fantasy Playhouse are partnering with us on this. And again, at an event like Panoply where you can have 70 plus attending, you already have this great sense of community, but then you layer on a public installation and interactive experience like that and it shows us how we are all related.”
Besides the new art installations, this year’s Panoply will bring back the Spoken Word stage for the second year to showcase literary and spoken word artists. The art marketplace will be expanded too.
“Because downtown continues to evolve, Panoply continues to have a different feel from year to year,” Dillon-Jauken said. “The footprint will be a little different.”
Panoply is a juried art show with a blind selection process. The Art Council accepts 120 artists for the festival, each vetted and assessed by professional artists. Some of these artists are local and regional, but there are also some artists from as far away as the western and northeastern parts of the United States.
“We are careful to select artists so we have the very best art show out there for the community to enjoy,” Dillon-Jauken said. “We want to ensure that there’s something for everyone out there.”
Inclusion of all types of art is important to the Arts Council. They understand that there are people in the community who feel that art is not for them, so they ask that first-time visitors come with an open-mind.
“There is such a mix of artistic things at Panoply,” Jones said. “There is jewelry, pottery, mixed media, paintings and whimsical stuff and then there is the fancy. You may not know what speaks to you until you see it. I started off at Panoply treating myself with a little piece of jewelry or a little piece of pottery. And now I do the big paintings.”
Allison Dillon-Jauken says another big draw to the festival is the music. In fact, the increase in music artists has challenged organizers to find enough stage slots to program everything they want to program. There will be two music stages, the Showcase Stage and the Indie Stage, featuring over 30 performances. Some of the acts include The Wanda Band, Them Damn Dogs, Karmessa, Rob & the Proponents, Charles and Tanya, Jackson Chase, Remy Neal and Pat Jamar. The Indie stage is set to include Chelsea Who, Winslow Davis, Josh Taylor, Christy and Allie, and Common Man.
“We really go out and get the best of local music,” Dillon-Jauken said. “If asked who is my favorite, I answer who I’m listening to right now. I get so excited because we really do assess our musical artists based on artistic excellence.”
Last year’s change in the footprint included crossing Church Street into East Park. In the center of East Park, again this year, will be the student art tent. This tent showcases student art from students in Huntsville City, Madison City, Madison County schools and private schools. The art teachers from these schools are on hand to answer questions and to help patrons find a student’s artwork.
“The student art tent is considered the centerpiece of childhood for a lot of people in Huntsville and Madison County,” Dillon-Jauken said. “We always get asked where the student art tent is located. Those teachers put in the time and energy to select their student
work and get it prepared to be presented at the festival. They are dedicated to their students and to this festival. And I can’t tell you the number of times I meet adults who say they had their artwork showcased at Panoply back in the day.”
Besides the student art tent, East Park features the Panoply letters, more visual artists and the Indie Stage for an intimate performing opportunity. This area offers a grassy lawn for visitors to sit and listen to the music.
“It has a really laid back vibe,” Dillon-Jauken said. “I love it when I see people coming in early in the day with blankets and everything they need to just camp out and enjoy a day of art, music and more.”
Dillon-Jauken would be remiss if she did not mention the array of food that is offered at the festival. She says they try to get a variety of local and regional food and a great selection of local craft beer to celebrate local artisans.
With all types of art, including the craft beer, covered at the festival, organizers look for the perfect artist to fulfill another Panoply tradition–the poster. This year’s artist is Denise Onwere. Onwere, a local self-taught artist and art educator, has a gallery located in Lowe Mill.
“Sometimes there are themes we wish to explore, other times we are drawn to a particular artist’s style. For 2023, we feel like the community is still coming together post-COVID and we wanted really compelling art that was vibrant and colorful, with a focus on unity,” Jones said. “There were several artists in consideration, but we really feel like Denise’s artwork and colorful style were perfect for 2023, and she delivered a beautiful work of art that evokes unity.”
Although art is the focus of Panoply, the event has become synonymous with rain, especially since the festival is held rain or shine. That is why Arts Huntsville made the National Weather Service a partner. The organization sets up an exhibit so they can talk to visitors about safety and weather awareness.
“The weather has become a type of joke. Last year, we printed T-shirts that said “Panoply, please don’t rain.” And we had cookies that said the same thing,” Jones said. “And they sold fast. Ouch. But it is always a gorgeous weekend when the weather cooperates.”
Local meteorologists are consulted days before the festival and are onsite throughout the weekend if needed.
“Obviously, our big concern is everybody stays safe and has a good time,” Jones said.
Even the art of math is addressed at Panoply as NASA has a booth presenting engineering, technology, street science and STEM, again giving the art festival another “uniquely Huntsville” quality.
“We love having them out there,” Dillon-Jauken said. “It’s just another way to offer something for everyone.”
And offering something for everyone is what Dillon-Jauken takes pride in most when working on Panoply. She says the volunteers get the bug and return, some for the past 41 years. Visitors get hooked as well, constantly asking for artists that they have experienced in the past. And the city of Huntsville?
“Even if people move away, they still want to come back to Panoply,” Dillon-Jauken said. “So, this festival really is Huntsville at its best with people rolling up their sleeves and making something special happen in the heart of downtown.”