As the festival season draws to a close, September sees ArtsFest - the UK's largest free arts festival - light up the streets of Birmingham for the sixth year. Boasting an attendance to match that of Glastonbury, ArtsFest was originally designed as Britain's answer to Amsterdam's Uitmarkt festival and an opportunity to show off the West Midlands' finest talent. "I've been part of it since it kicked off," says Paul Kaynes - the co-director and one of the festival's founders - "but it has really expanded this year."
Kaynes is in no doubt as to what sets this event apart from the many festivals vying for attention over the summer. "It's free of course, but ArtsFest is not just an end in itself. It is very much conceived to encourage new audiences for the arts."
Much of the festival is divided into 30-minute performance slots, with each artist appear- ing several times across the weekend in different parts of town. This "taster" format means that one moment you could be listening to a gypsy-influenced Flamenco guitar band, and the next participating in a salsa workshop - without leaving your seat. "The tasters let audiences see what's on in the region without investing too much energy," says Kaynes. "Sure, go and have a great time, but the purpose is for people to get a sense of opera for the first time, or perhaps to start to understand the art of DJing. Hopefully, they'll go and see the act again later on in the year. It really is a showcase for talent." And does it work? "Definitely. You can reach many more people."
One artist who has benefited from ArtsFest is the jazz saxophonist Soweto Kinch, who appeared at last year's festival. Now a Mercury Music Prize nominee, he will be one of this year's big names. "He'd been around Birmingham for a while and we gave him a big platform. Since then, he has got bigger and better. It was important to us that he came back this year."
Another act not to be missed is the eccentric Spanish theatre company Sarruga, who will take to the streets with a procession of giant insect sculptures, timed to hit Centenary Square as the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra are finishing their set. "It's the second year that we've incorporated an international element. It'll be extraordinary... and all next to the CBSO," enthuses Kaynes. Other highlights this year include Dhol Foundation, fresh from acclaimed sets at Glastonbury and Womad, and the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
Famous names are not the biggest draw, however: "The most popular part of the festival is our Mini ArtsFest," says Kaynes. "The kids can do anything from trying out circus skills to learning sign language for music. This year, the RSC is doing face painting.
"When we started we were in one arena. We envisaged it as becoming an important event, but its rapid growth has been a surprise. This year, more than 400 arts organisations applied. The West Midlands is so rich in arts and culture. We just give them a platform."
Birmingham ArtsFest (0121-685 2605; www.artsfest. org.uk) 13-14 September
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