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Barrie Art Club draws out Kempenfest's origin story

While some aspects of Kempenfest have changed, others remain exactly the same after 50 years; Popular festival at Barrie waterfront starts Friday

With scrapbooks laid out in front of him filled with newspaper clippings from over the decades, Alan Gibbs tells the story of the little club that started up a really big show.

The huge August long-weekend event called Kempenfest — which begins Friday, July 29 and carries on through Monday, Aug. 1 — straddles Barrie’s waterfront and draws an estimated 200,000 people over four days every year. And its origins start with the Barrie Art Club. 

It all began with the Huronia Festival of Arts and Crafts, Gibbs, a self-described amateur portrait artist, tells BarrieToday.

“The paintings were hung on the snow fence at the park,” he says, referring to a 1971 article in the now-defunct Barrie Examiner. “It’s still to this day the Huronia Festival of Arts and Crafts. All those tents that you see at the lakeshore, that is the Huronia Festival of Arts and Crafts.”

The park, as it turns out, was the former Formosa Spring Brewery, which became Molson Park in the city's south end  long since sold and developed. In that first year, the event attracted 5,000 people. 

Featuring original art, it was and continues to be a juried show, attracting competition from hundreds of artists across central Canada.

The art festival grew every year and four years after its launch, it moved to the relatively new Centennial Beach with access to the entire waterfront. That’s when the Kiwanis Club joined forces to co-sponsor the event and add food to the venue.

That year, crafters were also invited to the show.

Then other community service clubs, recognizing the fundraising possibilities, also joined in, providing food, entertainment, midway rides, beverage gardens, and other attractions. 

A board was then struck to oversee the entire event and Kempenfest was born.

“Arts and crafts are the main centrepiece event, but over the years it has expanded to include a lot more,” says Tom Aikins, who has long been involved in organizing Kempenfest and currently serves as its sponsorship co-ordinator. “Music and entertainment is now a big part of the festival. Right now, we have two stages.”

Entry to the art show has always been free, and the exhibitors pay a fee. The net profits are then split between the art club and the Kiwanis; it roughly works out to $35,000 each, which both clubs use to do more good in the community.

For the art club that means contributing to a spacious King Street facility where members can meet, work and show in separate but connected spaces. The club also funds art scholarships through Georgian College.

Kempenfest is now considered one of the largest outdoor arts, crafts and music festivals in North America, snaking along two kilometres of the Kempenfelt Bay shoreline on what often turns out to be the summer’s hottest weekend.

There are more than 300 juried artisans and crafters showing and selling their wares out of tents. There’s an array of food offerings and there’s four days of live music on two stages.

The long weekend kicks off with a Friday night concert featuring The Sheepdogs, a ticketed event at the stage outside the Southshore Centre. Other acts through the weekend include Death From Above 1979, Tebey and Practically Hip, a tribute to Canada’s Tragically Hip.

A family stage at the foot of Victoria Street includes a cross-section of entertainment starting Friday night right through the weekend. Barrie Wrestling will also host matches.

The kids’ village, next to the midway near Centennial Park, will feature many art-focused activities including painting murals and button designing with the help of the MacLaren Art Centre.

Organizers say Kempenfest has given back more than $10 million to the community since its inception over 50 years ago. 

That’s quite a story for local the art club. But it’s just part of the story.

The club tracks its own origins to 1949, and in its day managed to draw direct inspiration from members of the Group of Seven landscape painters.

One day in 1959, the youngest Group of Seven member, A.J. Casson, swung by and did a demonstration. The result was a painting which he signed and left to the club. It became the jewel of the club’s collection. 

Eventually, a giclée print was made and filed in among the club’s print collection while the original painting was hung proudly on display in the art club’s galley.

Early in 2010, as members worked at the Barrie Art Club’s  location, then off Dunlop Street near Highway 400, they realized it was gone. They searched the entire premises, but only the giclée could be found. The original had somehow disappeared.

Barrie police employed forensic specialists during their investigation. But the painting was never found and the club, instead, filed an insurance claim for $25,000.

Gibbs had done a local television interview the previous week in which he referred to and showed the painting. He figures that may have sparked the theft. Just how it was stolen, though, remains a mystery. 

“How they got in, because we have security, no one knows,” Gibbs says. “We’ve never heard anything more about it.”

Its value now, they figure, has undoubtedly escalated.

The art club, with all its history, remains a grassroots organization attracting everyone from students to seniors, says president Lorraine Maher, a watercolour artist who figures she’s been involved in the club on and off for 30 years.

“It stimulates and encourages education of the art and people who have a talent within the community,” she says. “It focuses on bringing the community together in a social, creative and educational way. It covers all the basis, for people, I think.”

Young artists, many of whom have been involved in Georgian College’s art programs, seek influence and inspiration from older club members, she says. Many also take advantage of the workshops on offer.

Meanwhile, final plans for Kempenfest are underway.

Aikins reports advance ticket sales for the concerts are well ahead of previous years. 

“I think people are just pent up and are now ready,” he says.

Barrie hasn’t experienced a full-on Kempenfest since 2019. And there’s every indication the 2022 iteration could be one of the biggest, weather allowing.