Riverfest Arts and Music Festival
Riverfest Arts and Music Festival was Arkansas’s premier summer event, offering three days of music on the banks of the Arkansas River in downtown Little Rock (Pulaski County) and North Little Rock (Pulaski County). Operated by Riverfest Inc., a nonprofit organization overseen by a board of directors, Riverfest attracted more than 250,000 people in 2013, creating an economic impact of more than $30 million in the local community.
Founded by the Junior League of Little Rock as the Summer Arts Festival in July 1978, the first Riverfest presented the American Wind Symphony and other activities at Murray Park. Following the event’s initial success, the date of the Summer Arts Festival was moved the next year to its well-known Memorial Day weekend slot, and the event was renamed Riverfest Arts and Music Festival. Riverfest was moved from Murray Park in 1982 to the Convention Center Plaza and then in 1983 to its home in Julius Breckling Riverfront Park, adding activities at North Little Rock’s North Shore Riverwalk in 2002. The event was free for its first twelve years, but as the quality and quantity of the entertainment rose, admission prices were introduced. The gate price for Riverfest 2013 was $35.
The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra presented an annual performance, and past nationally recognized musical acts include Willie Nelson, Al Green, ZZ Top, B. B. King, Hank Williams Jr., James Brown, Run DMC, the Black Crowes, LL Cool J, and Carrie Underwood. An Arkansas-only musical tent was added to the festival in 2008, showcasing the state’s best live musical acts.
Beyond the annual economic impact of the event, Riverfest played a part in the redevelopment of the riverfront and downtown areas of Little Rock and North Little Rock through more than $700,000 in donations to a myriad of projects. Riverfest Inc.’s first financial contribution to the community was a $50,000 contribution in 1983 to construct the East Fountain in Riverfront Park. Since then, Riverfest Inc. has contributed to the construction of Riverfest Amphitheatre and the East Pavilion in the River Market, along with a 2008 pledge of $100,000 toward the Le Petite Roche project in Riverfront Park. Riverfest Amphitheatre was renamed First Security Amphitheater in 2013.
Riverfest Inc. was operated by an executive director and four full- and part-time staff members, along with a board of directors with standing positions from the Junior League of Little Rock, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, the City of Little Rock Department of Parks and Recreation, the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Downtown Partnership, the North Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission, and the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce. The nonprofit organization was supported by a network of benefactors—both corporate and private—who sponsored the event’s large fireworks show and more. Local government agencies such as police, fire, and city departments donated worker hours to support the event. An army of volunteers worked year-round planning and then staffing the three-day event.
Riverfest was long held on Memorial Day weekend, but in September 2015, the organization announced changes that included scheduling the event in June. Too, children’s programming that had long been a part of Riverfest was separated from the main festival and moved to a separate, free event called Springfest in April. In addition, the festival was no longer a single-ticket event.
On July 18, 2017, the board of directors of Riverfest announced the festival’s suspension, citing the rising cost of performers’ fees and the increased competition from other festivals around the country. However, in early 2018, Universal Fairs of Memphis, Tennessee, and the Riverfest organization announced a partnership that would allow the festival to continue. The 2018 festival proceeded with lower-than-expected attendance, and the organization announced a hiatus for 2019 with hopes to return the following year.
For additional information:
Hill, Jack W. “Take Me To The River.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 23, 2008, pp. 6W, 8W.
Lewis, Bill. “Centerpiece at Arts Festival’s 1st Day Offers a Sort of Civilized Surrealism.” Arkansas Gazette, July 30, 1978, p. 3A.
Marymount, Mark. “Riverfest.” Arkansas Gazette, May 24, 1991, Weekend edition, p. 1.
Riverfest Arkansas. http://www.riverfestarkansas.com (accessed November 10, 2020).
Snyder, Josh, and Rachel Herzog. “Organizers of RiverFest to Skip ’19, Rethink Event.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 26, 2019, pp. 1B–2B.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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