John McClelland was in his first job as recreation supervisor for the Lexington Department of Parks and Recreation when he visited the St. James Court Art Show in Louisville.
"I said, 'Why can't we do that in Lexington?'" McClelland said Friday morning in Woodland Park.
So he did, 40 years ago this summer.
The first Woodland Art Fair was launched with about 30 artists, and it was rained out both days.
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The 40th edition is set for two sunny, hot days in the park this weekend, with 200 juried artists and food, activities, music and other entertainment. The Woodland Art Fair attracts tens of thousands of people annually to Woodland Park in the middle of August.
McClelland says the event grew in part because he and his parks and rec colleagues figured out that they were not qualified to run an art fair by themselves.
"People asked if we wanted to be an art fair or a craft fair. We said we wanted to be an art fair," McClelland said. "They said, are you a juried fair? We said, 'What does that mean?' We needed help."
So the city enlisted the Lexington Art League to help present the fair in a partnership that has spanned four decades.
The 40th Woodland Art Fair does find the Art League in a bit of a transitional phase after a financial crisis that forced it to cut staff and make some other trims earlier this year. Despite the turbulence, board chairwoman Christine Huskisson said that the Art League's participation in the fair this year was never threatened.
"It's vital to our mission to make art available to wider audiences," Huskisson said. Referring to the Art League's home base, she said, "We see a lot of people out here who never come to the Loudoun House."
Among the attractions at the art fair, Huskisson said, there is a wishing tree by Lexington artist Stacey Chinn where people can leave a wish for a small donation to the Art League, which she said will meet later this month to craft a strategic plan.
"We have heard a clear message that we need to be supporting local artists," Huskisson said of the league's likely direction.
One local artist who spoke at a Friday morning media event to kick off the fair was photographer Don Ament, who has exhibited at Woodland for 20 years.
"It's a thrill to be in this show," Ament said. He has exhibited in shows around the country, he said, but "there is no finer show to exhibit in than the Woodland Art Fair."
Woodland has become "a sophisticated art gallery," Ament said, and people of all levels of interest and budget can find something there.
Mayor Jim Gray said Woodland comes at the end of a busy time for Lexington-area arts, including Ballet Under the Stars at Woodland, and SummerFest and Opera Under the Stars in the MoonDance Amphitheatre in Beaumont.
"Great cities have great art communities," Gray said.
McClelland, who retired from the city in 2002 and now works with Habitat for Humanity, said that when Woodland started, none of those events existed. Nor did the annual Fourth of July celebration or Jazz at Ecton Park.
"People were hungry for an event like this," McClelland said. "It's an amoeba that keeps growing, which is what art should do: inspire more art."