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Renaissance Festivals in the USA

– educating, entertaining, profitable
By Linda Küttner

For over 20 years the Renaissance Festivals in the USA have seen unwavering success and popularity among patrons. The first time at the Renaissance Festival is usually a curious, unique and intriguing experience where colourful flags with ancient crests, actors and patrons in medieval wardrobe, jousters on horses, falcons in the sky, medieval melodies, the scent of delicious cooking and the sound of strong voices urging patrons to look at handmade merchandise displayed in colourful huts and tents create an enchanting illusion of a medieval European fantasy world.

Even though the aim is to entertain, Renaissance Festivals succeed in playfully introducing living history, crafts and arts to children, create a community experience, help to preserve ancient crafts and provide a lot of artists and crafters with a way to earn a living.
Even in times of recession and crisis the Festivals remain popular for many reasons, one of them being that the illusion of an unmechanized world without problems like unemployment is created. People escape into a world with a more basic set of values, where honour, courtesy and friendship are appreciated and where blunt, witty and brusque behaviour is perfectly acceptable which stands in sharp contrast to the political correctness of American society.

The Florida Renaissance Festival, Deerfield Beach for example is celebrating its 18th birthday next spring and – unlike other businesses during the crisis is even able to expand and put on a second Festival in Miami. Every year the 5 weekend Festival which is going to be extended one extra weekend next year, sees about 100.000 patrons that come to be captivated by the unique atmosphere.

Most of the products sold at the Festivals are hand-crafted, which is a rarity in the United States where price is often the deciding factor for a sale and most everything is made by a machine. The Renaissance Festivals therefore are an important market for artists and crafters who otherwise would have little chance to make a living in a country where subventions for art by the government is still the exception and the chances to survive as a full-time-artist, unless one happens to be part of the popular elite, are slim. By travelling the whole country the vendors present their goods to a much larger audience then they could have at a shop based in their home town and the special atmosphere of the festival contributes to making the purchase of an item a special experience for the buyer. Traditional crafts like basket weaving, spinning and weaving, glass-blowing, blacksmithing, pottery, seamstressing, wood carving, but also exotic entertainment like falconry or the Carillion – a French bell instrument made out of bronze weighting four tons - are presented and often feature hands on activities, like the popular candle making, fencing or maypole dancing.

Some patrons go beyond just visiting the Festival once a year and organize living history and re-enactment groups. They make their own costuming, learn how to swordfight or learn about medieval cooking and herbal medicine, which - unlike in Europe - is hardly ever used by doctors and pharmacies.

Even though the Festival management usually restricts the items allowed to be sold due to having to fit with Renaissance theme, artists are able to earn a living and practice the full range of their skill during the week. A musician for example that is restricted to playing medieval songs on the weekend can afford to create and perform what he desires during the week. Being on the road for most of the year to retire to the winter quarter's off season, living in secluded camping areas usually close to or on Festival grounds creates a secluded parallel-society with its own set of values and sense of community. While not all participants are artists or crafters this safe-haven for people who can not or do not want to find a place in American society can be a niche for artists to be productive, discuss and reflect.

Linda Küttner

From Germany. Majored art management. Official staff of Trave Art festival 2005 and The Florida Renaissance Festival . Will stay in Tokyo until December.

Let's write to Linda!

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