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In Salem, a summer festival returns as ‘large-scale community art therapy’

A dancer performed on one of Salem Arts Festival's tiny four-by-four stages in 2018.John Andrews/Creative Collective

Venture into Salem this weekend and you’ll see art everywhere — in shop windows, on sidewalks, in pop-up galleries, in tented vendor stalls offering wares by local artisans. You’ll hear live music wafting through the air and see dancers showcasing creativity on tiny stages measuring 4 feet by 4 feet. You might even encounter any number of colorfully garbed fairies spreading their fanciful magic.

It’s all part of the 13th annual Salem Arts Festival. A joint project of Salem Main Streets and Creative Collective, with business and organizational partners throughout the city, the festival features three days of free, family-friendly activity. And it marks the first in-person arts festival on the North Shore since the state relaxed COVID restrictions last weekend.


“It’s been a roller coaster ride for sure,” said Kylie Sullivan, Salem Main Streets’ executive director, in a recent phone interview. “This is the first real community festival since things opened up, and we want to make sure to get it right to keep everyone safe, but we’re so excited to see people come out.”

The event will be just as celebratory and community-focused as ever, Sullivan said. “Making and performing art together and getting to do it collaboratively is a really big element of our festival. Our sweet spot is really to focus on the wealth and depth of talent here and what we’re able to make together.”

But the festival doesn’t just highlight a vibrant cultural community — it’s helped create and strengthen it, bringing people together and providing an economic boost to the city. “Part of the reason I fell in love with Salem is that there are so many creative and talented people just below the surface,” said John Andrews, owner of Creative Collective, a business program that aims to foster connections between traditional businesses and creative endeavors. “And part of the excitement for me is finding opportunities for them. I feel like arts and culture are just as integral to Salem as the history of Salem.”


A view of the 2018 Salem Arts Festival.John Andrews/Creative Collective

The festival has been anchored historically in the Derby Square arts area in downtown Salem. But this year, organizers are also using a variety of indoor and outdoor venues around two additional hubs — the Salem Common and Charlotte Forten Park, which honors the abolitionist, educator, and poet who was the first Black person to graduate from Salem State University. This will spread activities throughout a wider area and allow for more distancing among festival-goers.

“We used to squeeze as much as possible into Derby Square, but this time we’re making it more of a stroll, more comfortable and relaxing. We are looking forward to people having the opportunity to sit and catch up with each other,” Sullivan said. She recommends out-of-town visitors check for parking suggestions and see volunteers stationed at key areas for additional information and maps (which are also available online).

In addition to performances and art-making activities for all ages, visitors can also watch professional artists create murals in real time as part of the annual Mural Slam along Salem’s Artists’ Row across from Old Town Hall. Murals will stay up for the entire season, but festival-goers will get the chance to see them in-the-making and connect with the artists. In addition, businesses and storefronts will be showcasing works by local artists such as Lee Wolf, who will display at the newly reopened CinemaSalem more than 80 sketches of local faces he missed seeing during the pandemic. And if you crave a cool drink or a bite to eat, eateries all around the area will be spilling onto sidewalks to provide outdoor service.


Mike Grimaldi participated in the 2018 Mural Slam at Salem Arts Festival.John Andrews/Creative Collective

This year’s Community Art Project, by Linda Mullen, is a large installation piece titled “Together,” designed to offer an opportunity for reflection and healing after the challenges and losses of the past year. Volunteers will help visitors create white flowers out of marine-grade shrink wrap to add to a large pre-constructed frame that organizers hope will stay up through the month of June.

In fact, the entire 2021 festival is a kind of experiment in “large-scale community art therapy,” Sullivan said. “We have been afraid of each other for over a year now, literally distancing ourselves from each other. That’s not going away overnight, but we need tools to help us reconnect, and I think the arts can do that in a way unlike anything else. When you dance together, make something together, that anxiety and fear and pain can start being processed.”


June 4-6,

Karen Campbell can be reached at