For many local art lovers, the Penrod Arts Fair has become a cultural mainstay in the city of Indianapolis, with hundreds of artists from near and far showcasing their work as part of one grand event. It's been a long road of growth. The first-ever fair was started when a group of 22 men pooled some money together in hopes of making something special happen.
"People complained, including our contemporaries and sometimes even ourselves, that there was nothing to do in Indianapolis," says John DePrez, Jr., one of the initial 22 Penrod founders. "We began thinking, 'There actually is a lot to do in Indianapolis.' You had the symphony. You had various performing arts groups: the Civic Theatre, the IRT and other organizations. We thought, 'Well, maybe we should try to show the community that there are other things going on — that there is more to Indianapolis other than it being India-no-place.'"
So, on Saturday, Sept. 9, 1967, the first Penrod Arts Fair was held, with the founders picking the second Saturday of September as a date — after doing some research on the least rainy days in Indiana. Like this year's event, the first fair was held on the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. However, the current museum was not built in 1967, which meant that Penrod would be able to serve a greater purpose.
"What we were really trying to do was expand the IMA's viability in anticipation of the new building, which was then envisioned but construction hadn't started yet," says Ted Boehm, one of the original Penrod 22. "The deal was that to get into the fair, you had to become a member of the IMA, which at that time had a $15 price tag attached to it. You could come to the fair for $20, but you got a free membership to the museum as a part of that. So what we were trying to do was build membership and awareness of the museum."
While this 1967 price for Penrod is much like today's, the prices of food and beverages at that first fair were vastly different.
"The first year we had free beer and 10 cent hot dogs," remembers John Roberts, Jr., another one of the founding Penrod 22. "Someone came over to me and said, 'We've run out of nickels.' So I told him, 'Well, tell them the hot dogs are a dime a piece and two for a quarter.' And we didn't give them any change because we didn't have any." Much like with Penrod today, a point was made to get other outside arts organizations involved with the fair, like the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, for example.
"We kept trying to give exposure to more and more art groups around Indianapolis and to improve the venue to provide them better facilities," says DePrez, Jr., who assisted with the first seven or eight Penrods before leaving Central Indiana. "We were constantly trying to upgrade the experiences of both the performers and the audience."
In the midst of all of this planning, camaraderie was at the heart of everything. And all 22 men also brought their own unique talents to the table, too. For example, DePrez, Jr. comes from a news background while Boehm comes from a law background.
"The relationships formed in Penrod ended up being applied to other much bigger projects," says Boehm, who served as a judge on the Indiana Supreme Court for 14 years before retiring in 2010. "By the 1980s and '90s, the people who were the 28-year-old Penrod founders were leaders of other various organizations in town, from nonprofits to government to big businesses."
With Penrod's 50th anniversary nearing, Boehm, DePrez Jr. and Roberts Jr. all say they're still looking forward to the festivities, despite no longer having an organizational role with the fair.
"I'm looking forward to just seeing old friends and seeing the various art that's for sale," says DePrez Jr., who plans on attending the Friday "Evening with Penrod" event. "It's just a wonderful party." And now decades removed from his involvement with the event, he also sees the lasting impact Penrod has had on Indianapolis residents as a whole.
"I think it exposes people to the opportunities that there are for them to be participants or observers of the arts in a way that's very inexpensive and brief," he concludes. "It just shows them that there are very worthy things that they can enjoy after the arts fair has ended."
(Editor's Note: This article was graciously boosted on social media by Penrod Arts Fair [www.penrod.org]. Penrod Arts Fair had no input on the content in this article or the decision to create it.)