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Durham's CenterFest expands artistic reach

When it comes to art, Durham is the center of attention.

The 39th annual CenterFest, organized by the Durham Arts Council, is a festival in the heart of downtown Durham that celebrates the city’s culture.

Originally created as a program to help revitalize Durham, CenterFest gives the city a chance to showcase itself, said Sherry DeVries, executive director of the Durham Arts Council.

“CenterFest is the largest festival in Durham,” she said. “In addition to showcasing the art, which is the core component, it also becomes the community showcase — nonprofits, government offices, political parties — so it really becomes a giant welcome wagon in downtown Durham.”

Devries said downtown renovations have allowed CenterFest to expand and include aspects of the city as well as art. This year, the festival has many local vendors — including food and beer gardens — and hopes to attract 25,000 attendees.

“We’ve been able to expand a little bit,” she said. “I hope (the attendees) really enjoy and cultivate more appreciation for the arts — and I hope they have a great time visiting downtown. If people haven’t been here in the past couple of years, it’s amazing how the revitalization process has taken hold. It’s a really exciting place, and we’re proud of it.”

Performing artists at CenterFest are local to the Triangle area, and an intimate knowledge of Durham’s culture inspired many, such as songwriter Laurece West, to get involved with the festival.

“The first time I went to the festival, that’s what I noticed — a wonderful mix of people live here,” she said. “There’s not only people from all over the world here, there’s a thriving art scene. I can visually see and hear all the great talent that we have.”

Though 99 percent of performers are from the Triangle, Durham Arts Council artist services manager Lindsay Gordon said more visual artists have begun to come from across the country as CenterFest’s reputation grows.

“This year we had 283 applications for 140 artist spaces,” she said. “Last year we only had 177, so CenterFest’s reputation has grown in the artist community. This year’s group of artists has about 82 people from North Carolina — 17 of those are from Durham. The rest come from all over the country, up and down the East Coast and as far West as Colorado.”

Each artist no matter his or her origin brings diversity to the festival’s lineup. West, for instance, combines her singing with world beat music.

“I lived in New York in a Hispanic neighborhood for seven years, so I was constantly listening to Latin rhythms — that’s what we’re doing: Latin rhythms with my white singer/songwriter persona,” she said. “It’s my way of being interracial with being who I am. Having that world influence — that reflects Durham. The city is so hip in terms of how many different types of people live here.”

West said Durham is 43 percent black and 44 white, according to statistics cited by Mayor Bill Bell at the Durham Arts Entrepreneur Expo.

“I really don’t know of very many other cities in the country with that parity,” she said.

While performers help foster diversity, all additional proceeds from CenterFest will be given to art education programs in the city. Though Durham is a worldly community, CenterFest is, by all standards, locally grown.

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