It all started when the College Hill Merchant and Professional Association decided to sponsor an artist festival in 1979, it was to enhance the Hill’s image and to bring more people to their shopping district. Under the visionary leadership of Hugh Pettersen, approximately 30 artists, most from Iowa, exhibited their art. Booths were set up on the sidewalks of the Hill and many artists had to modify their booths to compensate for the slope of the sidewalks! There wasn’t much the artists could do to escape the heat and humidity of July until the University of Northern Iowa agreed in 1987 to let the Festival use the tree shaded lawn at the intersection of 23rd & College Streets. This space was cooler and flatter plus it allowed for more artists. Over the years the Festival expanded from the original 30 artists to 75 artists who are selected by a panel of three independent jurors. These 75 artists usually represent about 20 states. With the increase in space, the Festival added the CHAF Foods Court, the Performing Arts Stage and many more student activities, including the renowned Young Art Collectors Gallery. Cedar Valley non profit arts organizations are also invited to have booths to encourage public awareness and participation in the arts available in the area.
In 1995, Karen Mukai and Len Froyen took over the reins as Co-Chairs of the Festival. Under their excellent leadership, the Festival continued to grow and improve. Following their retirement at the conclusion of the 2003 Festival, Mary-Sue Bartlett and Vaughn Griffith became only the 3rd Chairpersons of the Festival in its 30 year existence. They have continued the tradition of maintaining the quality and integrity of the Festival which has continued to grow in reputation throughout the state and the nation.
The College Hill Arts Festival has been named to Sunshine Artist magazine’s list of ‘100 Best Fine Arts & Design Shows’ in the United States for nearly the last decade. Gary Kelley’s Festival posters have won many National contests and awards. In addition, the College Hill Arts Festival was named the “2006 Event of the Year” by the Cedar Valley Tourism Bureaus.