RENO, Nev. An arts and cultural festival that began 13 years ago as an attempt to fill a tourism gap between the Reno Rodeo in June and the Hot August Nights car rally is coming of age as a key component of civic leaders' efforts to revive the city's image and restore its sense of community.
The monthlong Artown festival offers free events each day of July in a downtown park along the Truckee River as well as ticketed-performances at area stages and theaters by headliners ranging from Ringo Starr and Wynton Marsalis to the Harlem Gospel Choir and the Hubbard Street Dance Chicago troupe.
Two decades ago, organizers concede, the arts would have been one of the last images to come to mind in the Biggest Little City in the World, where quarter blackjack tables and 99-cent breakfasts were the main draw for tour buses of visiting Californians.
Since then, the river that rolls through downtown, once strewn with garbage, has been cleaned up and is home to a world-class kayaking and tube float park. Free summer concerts are held at an amphitheater on an island in the park, and a 60,000-square foot Nevada Museum of Art has been built just blocks away.
"This is our lucky 13th year," said Beth Macmillan, executive director of the festival that features music, dance, opera, hands-on arts programs, film screenings and theater performances.
"It's grown in size and scope. And I think Artown continues to change the way the rest of the country sees Reno. We're using arts and culture as a tool to do that, so that people around the country will say, 'They are doing WHAT in Reno?'"
The National Endowment for the Arts, which is supporting Artown this year with a $15,000 grant, calls it "one of the most comprehensive festivals in the country."
The original event drew about 30,000 to a three-week festival. Last year, more than 350,000 visitors attended with an estimated $15.7 million impact on the local economy.
Musical highlights throughout the month include the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, clarinetist David Krakauer's Klezmer Madness! Ensemble, Japanese-inspired drumming by San Jose Taiko and Sol de Mexico de Jose Hernandez, a premier mariachi band.
The Coeur d'Alene Art Auction has been scheduled in Reno July 25-26 in conjunction with Artown along with such multicultural events as the International Film Series, Festival of Russian Music, Gospel Bluegrass, Native American Festival, Aloha Festival, Food For the Soul World Music Series and 41st annual Basque Festival.
The Movies in the Park series offers free showings of motion pictures ranging from Disney's "The Lion King" to Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."
The Nevada Opera will present "Brundibar," which originally was performed by children in Nazi concentration camps, and the TheatreWorks of Northern Nevada is doing "Goldilocks On Trial," a courtroom farce dealing with the aftermath of the Goldilocks and the Three Bears fairy tale.
Numerous hands-on events are geared toward children and teenagers, many who come to frolic in the water park but end up staying to try their hand at painting, sculpting, dancing or acting in a play at the Discover the Arts workshops.
"Kids love to spend time now in downtown Reno," Macmillan said. "That's completely different than it was 10 or 20 years ago."
In addition to drawing tourists, festival backers say it's been pivotal in attracting residents from suburban neighborhoods to a downtown area that flourished in the heydays of the 1950s and 1960s but then deteriorated.
"One of the goals of Artown is to get people to understand downtown Reno," City Councilman Dave Aiazzi said. "From the city council's point of view, what Artown and arts and culture in general does is bring people to downtown who wouldn't normally go."
"Go ask people why they are buying condos downtown and they'll say they love Artown," he said. "They love the vibrance down here."
Fernando Leal, principal and managing partner of the Chicago-based L3 Development, is responsible for 380 condominiums under construction at the Montage high rise part of the $143 million reconstruction of the former Flamingo Hilton Casino and Hotel.
"Events like Artown played a major role when deciding to invest in downtown Reno," Leal said. "Many of the great urban neighborhoods today throughout the country started as pockets where artistic people lived, worked and played."
Karen Craig, executive director of the 1999 festival, said that at the time, no one thought of Reno as a place to enjoy the arts. "You do now," she said.
"Back then, all we basically had by the river was a parking gallery. The art museum was in the old Title Company building. I remember all those dirty buildings had their backs to the river," said Craig, who now works for the city's Redevelopment Agency.
Since then, the Riverside Hotel built in 1927 has been renovated into artist lofts with a deli and restaurant on the first floor. A theater complex fronts another riverside block and baskets full of colorful flowers hang from street lights on bridges and river walkways."Now, our riverfront is magnificent," Craig said. "Anybody who walks along it says 'I wish we had one of those in our town.'"
• ARTOWN: Reno, Nev., July 1-31; renoisartown.com or 775-322-1538.