By Liz Massey, December 2016 Web Exclusive.

It's often said the arts live in constant threat of being marginalized or erased from our public life, but the success of Phoenix Festival of the Arts, which is presented by Phoenix Center for the Arts, a nonprofit that stands in direct contrast to that fear.

The festival took its current form as a major, 100-plus vendor event five years ago. Prior to that, the event ran as a small, 12-tent student art show for several years. This year's event is projected to include more than 130 vendors and attract 12,000 visitors over the course of the three-day festival.

After the center became separate from the city of Phoenix, Lauren Henschen, the organization’s deputy director, said the students at the center were asked what they wanted from the holiday festival.

“They told us, ‘make it big,’ so we did,” she said.

A free community-focused event, Phoenix Festival of the Arts stands out in a sea of arts festivals held in the Valley each winter. Here are six reasons you should consider adding the festival, which runs Dec. 9-11, to your queer holiday season datebook.

1. It's local, local, local.

Henschen said a panel of four artists combs through vendor applications and allots spaces based on the quality of their work as well as their level of experience at other art festivals. Students who take classes at the center receive a discount on vendor fees. To encourage the money spent on merchandise at the festival to stay in the community, nearly 90 percent of vendors selected call the Valley home.

"We use this venue to promote not only our artist vendors, but also the many arts organizations that operate here in the greater Phoenix," said Don Ridley, a ceramics vendor, festival founder and Phoenix Center for the Arts ceramics program department head. "The festival is still in the growing phase but we are getting bigger and better each and every year. "

2. It's a festival of the arts, plural.

Visual art will be available in abundance at the festival, but a new covered pavilion will host a mainstage orchestrated by the AZ Music Project that will showcase musical acts such as Adam Smith, Tin Can Tourists and Pride Through Strife. Two smaller outdoor acoustic stages will feature acts that include Adam Reed and Levi Waskom. Dance aficionados can enjoy performances by troupes of contemporary, ballet and belly dance students, who will be led by instructors at the Phoenix Center of the Arts.

"This year we are also including a centralized area for demonstrations from our vendors and several performing arts groups," Ridley added. "The mural project is always a great part of the festival and adds a different flavor to the event."

3. You can be a part of the picture (literally).

The Phoenix Mural Project, a hands-on community art project organized by acclaimed local muralist, Hugo Medina, will work on a large-scale painting over the course of the three-day event. Festival goers of all ages will be invited to make their own mark on blank four-foot by four-foot canvases that will be set up on easels near the live mural painting area. On top of that, Henschen said, many vendor booths will boast signs that encourage visitors to ask them how they created a particular piece of work. “We encourage people to get involved in the process and ask questions,” she said.

4. It's family friendly on multiple levels.

According to Henschen, who noted that she and several other members of the center’s staff were LGBTQ, the organization had signed ONE Community’s Unity Pledge promoting non-discrimination. The festival is a “friendly, community-based and inclusive place," she asserted.

“Now, more than ever, it's important to be involved in our community," she said. "There's no better way to support the arts and our local community than by attending the festival.”

In addition to being LGBTQ friendly, the festival also welcomes families with children and offers a Family Zone, which will host a chalk art competition for young creatives. Of course, shoppers of legal drinking age may purchase beer and wine from festival vendors, and unlike some public events, are not restricted to a beer garden to do their imbibing.

5. It's free to attend.

Henschen said that the festival was conceived as a way for Phoenix Center for the Arts to give back to the community. There's no entrance fee and no cost to participate in arts activities at the event. Artist vendors will have work for sale, and hungry festival goers can fill their bellies for a price at an assortment of food trucks.

6. It's one of the best places for holiday shopping!

Henschen said the mix of local and national artists from disciplines as diverse as painting, pottery, glassware, jewelry, photography and mixed media provided a unique experience for shoppers seeking out-of-the ordinary gifts.

“[The festival] is a great place for anyone seeking a legitimately local artistic gift,” she said.

Editor's Note: Echo Magazine is a 2016 Phoenix Festival of the Arts sponsor and vendor.

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