After a two-year hiatus, Artsfest in the West came roaring back at Western Albemarle High School on the evening of March 10. The jam-packed, 3-hour event featured performances from western district school bands and choral groups, art and photography displays, and live art-making, plus food, a huge silent auction, and a sneak peek mini-performance from the upcoming WAHS musical “Matilda.”
The community celebration of art in all its forms is organized by volunteers from Arts in Western Education (AWE), a nonprofit that supports the arts in western district schools and puts on the annual Artsfest as a fundraiser to provide teacher grants and student scholarships in support of arts education.
“We were blown away by, and so very grateful for, the community’s support at the event,” said Jordan Zarwel, a western schools alum who is serving as vice president of AWE this year. “The turnout was amazing and the energy was palpable. The amount we raised for the schools was more than ever in years past. What a great and inspiring beginning to revitalize Arts in Western Education.”
Admission to the Artsfest has always been free, so a big key to this year’s fundraising haul was a compelling silent auction, coordinated by Meriwether Lewis Elementary parent Mairi Townsend. “She was amazing,” said Zarwel. “There were 92 items, some priceless experiences like a behind-the-scenes with UVA athletics like football, and front row parking and seating for the Henley and Western graduations. There were private tours of places like Waterperry Farm, a two-night stay at Boar’s Head, custom guitars, and art by a bunch of different local artists.” All of the festival’s food was donated as well, and attendees came hungry.
Artsfest in the West was dreamed up in 2013 by a group of parents as a way to benefit the student art programs at Crozet, Brownsville, Murray and Meriwether Lewis Elementaries, Henley Middle, and WAHS. “Our two main purposes are to grow arts programs and to help financially support the arts teachers,” said Zarwel. “Especially with cuts in their funding, we want to be able to support them so they can continue to build high quality programs.” The most recent Artsfest was held in 2020 just ahead of the COVID pandemic, which sidelined the event in 2021 and 2022.
“[The organizers] were thinking about having to sunset it entirely, as a lot of the parents were cycling off the board and funds were dwindling,” said Zarwel. “But then SalleeAnn Miller [AWE’s president] stood up at a music performance early in the year and basically just asked for funding for this really great cause. She’s very persuasive and we got really lucky with some incredibly generous donors—like Camilyn and Peter Leone. They have a student at Western and one who just graduated and they donated $10,000, so that really jump-started things. And now this year there are a bunch of new volunteers with younger kids involved, so it’s really exciting.”
Zarwel thinks that the arts are often “subconsciously forgotten.” “I think maybe they aren’t given enough credit in school, because they aren’t necessarily straightforwardly academic,” she said. “But I think people forget how important art is, especially for young, growing brains. It helps in everything, from cognitive development to social/emotional and multi-sensory skill-building, to self-esteem.” This year, AWE offered “Fine Arts Scholar” awards to three WAHS students, who can use the funds for arts education and will serve as members of the AWE board for a year. The winners were announced at the Artsfest: Matt Neu, Allison Fontaine, and Audrey Scialla. “These three students will be the eyes, ears, and voice for the arts students,” said Zarwel. “It’s really an Arts Leadership program.”
WAHS Fine Arts Director Laura Chatterson sees tremendous value in Artsfest exposing the district’s youngest students to older students doing the art they love, and to clear pathways for their interests. “For the younger kids, there are these great role models,” said Chatterson. “Seeing what happens if, say, I like to sing, and I take choir when I go to Henley, and then when I go to Western I can get into it even more—that’s a really good opportunity for kids. We actually had our elementary school students either displaying their art or putting it in a slideshow, and [hands-on] art like pottery wheel demos and face painting going on.”
Chatterson also loves the event for the camaraderie among her colleagues. “Artsfest is the first event that we did as a whole art department coming together,” she said. “Tim Driver, who was our previous Fine Arts Administrator, kind of planted the seeds for this and helped us get it going in the beginning, and it was so successful. We all love working with each other, and this is all of the art disciplines coming together, which is so much fun.”