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Datebook: Sugar Creek Arts Festival returns to Uptown Normal, with extra elbow room and cooler temperatures

 After going online in 2020, the Sugar Creek Arts Festival, pictured, returns to Uptown Normal Oct. 9 and 10.
Doug Johnson
McLean County Arts Center
After being online in 2020, the Sugar Creek Arts Festival returns Oct. 9-10 to Uptown Normal.
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The Sugar Creek Arts Festival has been a summer staple in Uptown Normal since 1984—that is, until the pandemic forced the esteemed annual art fair and street fest online last year. The live version returns Oct. 9-10, moving to sweater weather for the first time after decades in sweltering July heat.

McLean County Arts Center (MCAC) Executive Director Doug Johnson said the change of dates is not the only difference this year.

“This year, we have about 100 artists as opposed to 130 because we’ve made accommodations for the Uptown restaurants that have outdoor seating. We have artists a little more spread out than they have been in the past,” Johnson said.

The MCAC team avoids organizing artists by type, placing a smattering of different types of artists in each region of the festival that spans North Street, Beaufort Street, and around Uptown Circle

“If you’re a photographer, you don’t want to be near another photographer," said Johnson. "If you’re a jeweler, you don’t want to be bumping elbows with another jeweler. We try to give a diverse experience throughout the whole festival.”

While last year's virtual festival was largely deemed successful and the festival intends to continue its commitment to a digital presence, Johnson said there’s nothing quite like experiencing the two-day event in person.

“There is an anima when it comes to good artwork," he said. "There is a life that you cannot really gather from looking at something online. Frankly, one of the big pivot points for a festival like this is that you get to actually meet the artists and get a sense of who they are. Online is terrific, but it doesn’t carry the same kind of emotional context for the work.”

The festival is the primary annual fundraiser for the McClean County Arts Center that has been able to keep the lights on during the pandemic with help from grants. And for many of Sugar Creek’s visual artists, this will be their first major event since the pandemic began. Johnson said festivals and exhibitions like Sugar Creek are what allow artists to pay the bills.

“I think there is a misunderstanding that this is a weekend activity," he said. "These are real, working artists. These are people that have staked their lives and their livelihood on making art. For us, last year was heartbreaking when we’d see people that we’ve established long-term relationships with and they have made, sometimes, excellent livings working in this marketplace. We saw a lot of artists who had to seriously reconsider what their economic model was.”

Cooler weather, outdoor dining and live music played from two stages—including, among others, the silky voices of Normalites Marcos Mendez and Leah Marlene, a 20-year-old wunderkind who expertly blends pop, soul and Americana—will surely make for a pleasant weekend in Uptown.

But for artists like Johnson, an accomplished painter in his own right, it is particularly poignant to get see other artists back where they belong.

“We’re excited to see our friends again,” Johnson said, “and more excited to continue to support them in their continued role as artists.”

The Sugar Creek Arts Festival takes place from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Oct. 9-10 in Uptown Normal. For more information about the McLean County Arts Center, visit mcac.wildapricot.org.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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