This year’s Downtown Festival & Art Show was Linda Piper’s 22nd and final show.
The Hoggetowne Medieval Faire, which will be held during the last weekend of January and first weekend of February 2016, will be her last hurrah as event coordinator before she retires in June.
Twenty-nine years ago, her love of nature led her to take a position as an office assistant for what was then the Gainesville Department of Cultural and Nature Operations.
“I ended up loving my job,” she said. “I love working with the city, the arts and I love working with the people.”
Piper rose through the ranks and eventually became top assistant. When the event coordinator at the time gave her two-week notice, Piper’s boss suggested she learn as much as she could to run festivals. When she started in the position, there wasn’t a lot of organization or files, and the previous coordinators lasted only two years.
For the art show, she periodically contacted the previous coordinator to ask questions. The Society for Creative Anachronism Inc., a group dedicated to studying and recreating Medieval European cultures, also helped her in the beginning.
“When I produced the very first show, it was the most horrific experience of my life, and I thought I would never do it again because I couldn’t do it all myself,” Piper said.
After realizing she needed more helping hands to manage the show, eight University of Florida interns jumped on board.
After four years, she was able to make the show more her own. Each year for the past 22 years, it’s grown bigger and better, she said, but not without its setbacks.
She said she has stumbled across dozens of situations that have been frustrating or disappointing, such as when the Gainesville Police Department removed someone who was gathering petitions from the art show.
“It’s just part of the job, and I’m always able to move on,” Piper said.
Bill Hutchinson, entertainment coordinator for the Downtown Festival and Medieval Faire, worked on the festival when Piper was still an assistant.
“She gives me a set of organizational prowess,” Hutchinson said. “She makes it possible for it to come off without a hitch because she has thought of everything, absolutely everything.”
The Downtown Festival & Art Show is now ranked No. 14 on Sunshine Artist Magazine’s “200 Best” list of fine arts festivals in America, a ranking determined by artist feedback and sales.
When she started, about 165 artists applied for 160 booths. Now, more than 500 artists apply for the 240 spots. Currently, more than 100,000 people attend the art show and purchase artwork.
Since Piper took over the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire in its ninth year, it has grown from 70 booths and three stages to 165 booths and nine entertainment stages.
Now, about 12,000 people attend each day during its five-day run, compared to the 3,000 per day attendance over three days when she started.
Russell Etling, cultural affairs interim manager with the Gainesville Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs, said Piper’s personal style is remarkable because of how efficient she is with a small team, how passionate she is about the community and how dedicated she is to quality customer service.
“Those little touches make all the difference when you’re welcoming the same people many times year in and year out,” Etling said. “It is part of Gainesville’s brand and really part of her personal style.”
Sarah Hinds, co-founder of Somewhere Glassworks and more than a decade-long artist at the festival, attends many art shows throughout the year. She said she has felt the stress and angst from some festival coordinators, but when talking to Piper, she always seemed calm under pressure.
“It’s really evident that she has really put her heart into it, and that it’s more than just her job,” Hinds said.
Piper said she looks forward to the next chapter of her life. On July 1, the day after she retires, she’s going on a family vacation to Mexico. She also can’t wait to wake up later than her typical 3:45 a.m. to get to the office at 5 a.m. and plans to acquire some hobbies and volunteer.
“I’m so proud of all the work that I’ve done,” Piper said. “I don’t know if many people can say they absolutely loved their job.”