A look back: The history of Cotton District Arts Festival

Dancers at the 2017 Cotton District Arts Festival (Photo by Ryan Phillips, SDN)
Staff Writer

The annual Cotton District Arts Festival, held in the Cotton District each year, has show enormous growth since its beginning in 1986.

Dan Camp, owner of Cotton District Apartments, said he and his friend Ken Clifford came up with the idea to have an arts festival in 1986, and they put together a committee to plan the event. with other locals including Nell Elam and Dominic Cunnetta.

“He liked the area over here, and we thought we needed an event to showcase the area and the fine arts,” Camp said.

The first festival featured the MSU band, high school students and children, custom T-shirts, interactive arts and crafts and other live performances. Dan Camp’s son Robert Camp said he was a child during the first event, and he and his brother sold T-shirts out of the back of a wagon and set up a lemonade stand.

“It was a one day thing and, and it was the MSU art department made the T-shirts,” Dan Camp’s wife Gemma Camp said. “We didn’t have any food there, and it was hot, so Robert and his friend John set up a lemonade stand.”

Dan Camp said the original event was more focused on local people’s artistic endeavors, and there weren’t really any vendors selling art at the time.

“That was kind of similar to Sunday Funday when it got started,” Robert Camp said. “It was local artists, not really people coming and selling things. It was local, university people, with live music and like an arts and crafts fair.”

In 1987, the Camps hosted a black tie event at their home to raise money for the second event, and the festival was a success the second year too. However, the planning and execution was too much for the Camps to continue on their own, and the original festival fell by the wayside.

“The second one was a success, but we found it was overwhelming because we had two little kids and everyone else was just so busy,” Gemma Camp said.

While the exact year is unclear, Dan Camp said the Starkville Area Arts Council made a motion to revive the CDAF sometime in the 1990’s and combine it with Taste of Starkville, and the event has continued to grow since.

“It’s successful because of all the people on the committees and the Arts Council because we just let it die because we couldn’t do it, Gemma Camp said. “They established themselves.”

The Camps said they never imagined the festival to grow into what it is today.

“I have to hand it to Andy Gaston and Robert Fant, when they brought it over here, they worked their butts off getting the area ready and cleaning up the streets,” Dan Camp said.

Robert Camp said he credited the narrow streets of the Cotton District for making the CDAF feel so special.

“That narrowness and closeness of things really draws people together and brings them in,” Robert Camp said. “They have to walk down the narrow paths, and you’re close to people without even having to say anything.”

Greater Starkville Development Partnership Director of Tourism Jennifer Prather said today, the CDAF continues to grow each year, bringing thousands of visitors to town each year, offering an opportunity for Starkville to show off the creative culture it has to offer.

“The arts council has done a phenomenal job of recruiting and retaining strong vendors that allow for a shopping experience that is not only unique but that further supports the economic impact generated for our community during Super Bulldog Weekend.”