Mystic Outdoor Art Festival shifts its location and adds performing arts stage

Aug. 11—The long-running Mystic Outdoor Art Festival returns this weekend after not happening in 2020 because of the pandemic.

And it's coming back with new elements and angles.

One alteration is the new route. Booths will no longer be on the Groton side of the Mystic River Bascule Bridge but rather all on the Stonington side. Some of the booths and some activities will be inside the Mystic Seaport Museum.

The route will follow the Mystic River, from Cottrell Street to Holmes, left onto Bay Street and into the Shipyard at Mystic Seaport Museum, where there will be a large number of artists' booths. An entrance to the show will exist through the Seaport on Route 27 as well, and folks don't need to pay Seaport admission to get into the art festival.

Another fresh addition is a performing arts stage. The diverse offerings — ranging from musical theater to boogie-woogie piano to opera — will take place on the Seaport's green, starting at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and, all together, running about two hours each night. Again, people won't have to pay Seaport admission to see the shows.

'This is an adventure'

The festival, which is in its 63rd year, is run by the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce. The chamber has some new leadership; Bruce Flax became executive director in March, and other recent additions include membership manager Morgan Yandow and marketing and events specialist Solveig Persson.

Discussing the return of the art festival, Flax says, "To say we're excited is a gross understatement."

He adds, "This is an adventure — a good adventure, but it's an adventure for us ... It's a blessing and a curse that we've never been very involved with the art festival. It's an enormous event for the area. With the help of the committee, where some people are returning, we are forging our way."

With the festival not happening in 2020, organizers took the opportunity to talk with local police and fire departments and take into consideration comments from the past about safety and other issues.

Out of that, Flax says, "We made substantial changes to the route, which is turning a lot of heads. The feedback that we've heard overall has been extraordinarily positive, starting with the fire and police departments, who were very supportive of us taking the booths off of Route 1, so that was first major change," he says.

In the past, two-way traffic had continued on Route 1 during the festival, and there was concern about the possibility of people getting hurt.

"The second major change was we took the booths off of the Groton side of town. There were several reasons for that. One reason was a little COVID-related in that it was very congested when you had the booths on the street facing into the sidewalk. It just was a very tight space," he says.

Flax says downtown Mystic merchants have had positive comments about the booths being eliminated along Route 1, which makes it easier for people coming into those stores and, as Flax says, reflects a "more open-for-business-type atmosphere."

Flax notes that the Seaport's south parking lot holds more than 500 cars and will provide a great place for festival visitors to park and have a natural progression to walk into town; it also has the potential to keep 500-plus cars out of downtown Mystic.

The chamber has been working closely with Peter Armstrong, the Seaport's new president, and Shannon McKenzie, its vice president of museum operations, on the new festival collaboration.

About 195 artists, from both near and far, are expected at MOAF, and there will be more than 200 booths that also include nonprofits and sponsors. The art, as it long has been, is wide-ranging, from painting to sculpture to photography.

Neighbors concerned

Flax says the show and its new route wouldn't have worked if Bay Street didn't serve as a connection between Holmes Street and the Seaport.

When they first had the idea of shifting the festival location, organizers went to fire and police departments, which were "overwhelming in support," Flax says.

A group from the chamber went door to door on Bay Street to talk to residents about the plans. The street is 850 feet long, and the original idea was to put 20 booths there. The neighbors thought that was too many. The Stonington Police Commission approved the new route contingent on the festival organizers working things out with the neighbors.

Organizers went back and met with all nine neighbors and proposed that no artists booths would be on Bay Street, just one nonprofit or sponsor booth every 200 feet, Flax says. Residents didn't want anything on the street. Organizers told the Police Commission they tried to work it out and explained the new proposal (one non-artist booth every 200 feet), and the commission approved that.

"We tried to be very respectful about it," Flax says.

They went back for another meeting with a few neighbors, and one resident showed up, who, Flax says, was understanding and supportive of the plan.

Celebrating the performing arts

MOAF's Performing Arts Stage will showcase a range of performances from local and regional artists. Friday features a klezmer band, a post-modern dance curated by David Dorfman, and boogie-woogie pianist Arthur Migliazza, among others, while Saturday includes Connecticut Lyric Opera and cultural dance from the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.

Heading up the performing arts segment of the festival is Anthony Caporale, who produced shows in New York City and moved to Mystic in November, joining the chamber soon thereafter.

An abridged version of one of the pieces performed by his The Imbible theater company in NYC will be highlighted Saturday. (The Imbible had four shows run more than 2,000 performances over six years, before COVID shut down the country, Caporale says.)

"Pirates and Shanties" is a musical comedy that touches on the history of piracy and sea shanties.

"It's lots of fun, lots of comedy, costumes, but very historically accurate — that's kind of what we do, very educational as well," Caporale says.

His passion for history is part of what drew Caporale to Mystic.

"I thought if there was a way to collaborate with the Seaport, it would be terrific," he says.

Caporale says the MOAF performing arts element is sort of a pilot program, with the hopes that it can be a larger part of the festival in the future.

More for the kids

The festival will continue to have the Children's Art Park as part of things, but it will be located, instead of at Mystic River Park, inside the Mystic Seaport Shipyard.

The Mystic River Park, meanwhile, will be the site of a children's art installation from the Mystic Museum of Art. Students ages 4-21 each painted a chair in a way that invites people to be mindful of the issues the world has been facing over the past year, from pollution to politics.

Mystic Outdoor Art Festival, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat. and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun., from Cottrell Street to Mystic Seaport, Mystic; performing arts 6:30 p.m. Fri. and Sat. at Seaport; free;