Thursday, April 14, 2016

A Very Special Arts Festival (now Art in the Park)

Hey, Lynn here and it’s blog time again. I have been tasked with researching the elusive history of our annual Art in the Park festival, and it goes like this:

...In the beginning…

The City of Austin was selected as the site for the first Very Special Arts Festival, to be held in Texas, September 9, 1978 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Montopolis Recreation Center under joint sponsorship of the Parks and Recreation Department and the National Committee, Arts for the Handicapped. Carol Keeton McClellan, then Mayor of the City of Austin proclaimed this day as “VERY SPECIAL ARTS FESTIVAL DAY.” And so it began the birth of Art in the Park!

A VSA arts of Texas banner hangs on a fence
outside Art in the Park Festival at McBeth Recreation Center.

“Each of us as a unique individual has the need for self-expression…to explore, to experience, to say who we are. The creative arts provide channels for exploration of expressing one’s uniqueness for the handicapped, as well as the non-handicapped.” Michal Anne Lord, Supervisor of Adaptive Programs, Festival Coordinator, City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department

For a few years during the 80’s the City didn't host this event, but Steve Hamman, then Principal of Rosedale School, worked with the VSA State Director to create a VSA Council and to help with some basic funds for the event. The Rosedale VSA Council worked with McBeth Recreation Center to produce the first VSA festival. The Rosedale VSA Council then transitioned the event to Celia Hughes, (current Executive Director of VSA Texas) when she came on as State Director in 1999.

A guitar player performs at Art in the Park.
“My students had an awesome time. I've been taking students to this event for many years, and it's always educational and fun for the students. I hope you're able to continue providing this valuable service to our deserving Life Skills students here in Austin for many years to come.” Garcia M.S. Life Skills Program

In 1999, Art in the Park had a little less than 400 attendees from 25 schools and about 15 booths, mostly provided by VSA Texas. We now have over 80 schools from across Central Texas, over 1000 attendees, and 35 booths. Many of the same schools have returned throughout the years and consider this their most exciting event. We have had loyal support from many booth providers and performers such as Umlauf Sculpture Gardens, Mexic-Arte, Wings, Bruce Davis Band, Zippy the Clown, and others.

“We had such a great time. It was a wonderful event. I heard nothing but positive things from teachers and students. Thank you!” AISD GO Project, St. David's Episcopal Church
A student holds a maraca at Art in the Park.
In 2007, as a new staffer with VSA arts of Texas (as it was then called), I participated in my first Art in the Park at McBeth Recreation Center. I didn’t know what to expect, and it sleeted, rained and was cold. We hustled around and moved most of the activities inside, and then the rain stopped, kids played, performers performed, and the indoors magically housed what seemed to be a million people. It was a great day!

A group of students in tie-dye shirts pose for a photo
during Art in the Park at the MACC.
“The event was perfect! Getting in and out of the event went smoothly. We loved the art activities. Many of the activities we plan to recreate for our program. Thank you for your time and dedication in organizing this event. Our students' lives are enriched because of your work.” 18+ Program, Liberty Hill High School

So as the participation grew, in 2010, the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) became our new location for this event, providing more parking, more art activities, and more room for those “million+” participants.

Tomorrow will be another great Festival day!

A student wears a green balloon alien
on his head.


  1. Who would I speak to about becoming a vendor?

  2. Thank you for your inquiry! Please email Lynn Johnson at for information on how to participate in next year's Art in the Park festival.