Billie McLemore was skeptical when Fairview Heights city officials asked her to look into the idea of hosting an art festival in the late 1980s.
Alderman Gene Ellerbusch had just returned from a trip to Connecticut and was raving about the Mystic Outdoor Art Festival.
"To be honest, I said, 'I can't imagine a major art festival in Fairview Heights,''' said McLemore, then a member of the city's Economic Development Commission and an occasional artist.
"It just didn't have the ambiance of a place like Mystic, (which is) an historic little town on the coast of Connecticut."
That memory makes McLemore laugh today as the city prepares for its 25th Midwest Salute to the Arts this weekend at Moody Park.
One hundred award-winning artists from around the country will display and sell art at the juried show, everything from paintings to photographs, sculpture to jewelry.
Entertainment will include music by Erin Bode on Friday and Ethan Jones and Kim Massie on Saturday.
"We've never had this level of headline entertainment," said festival director Sharon Kassing. "It's our 25th, so we wanted to make it our biggest ever."
As always, the festival is being billed as a family event. Children create their own masterpieces and shop in a special gallery.
"Children can purchase a piece of art for $5 and take it to the artist and speak to them about it, learn how it was made and maybe have it signed," Kassing said.
"We're trying to foster a love of art in our children. They are our future artists and future art buyers."
Kassing has been volunteering with the children's Creation Station since 1999. This is her first year as festival director.
She has been doing historical research with help from McLemore, who served as director the first two years and later as logistics manager.
Despite her skepticism in the beginning, McLemore traveled to Mystic to check out its art festival in 1987. Like alderman Ellerbusch, she was impressed.
"I found out that it was a business venture (by the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce), and they made it work," she said. "They were drawing 50,000 people to their little town, and there wasn't a hotel or motel room for 50 miles."
McLemore also visited the Festival of the Masters at Walt Disney World and Cedar Hurst Art and Craft Fair in Mount Vernon.
"Some of the artists told me that there really wasn't a decent art show in the St. Louis area," McLemore said. "We predated the Clayton art show, and of course we predated Art on the Square (in Belleville)."
McLemore and other organizers determined Fairview Heights would try to attract visitors from throughout the region by inviting only award-winning artists to display and sell work.
More than 12,000 people showed up for the first festival in 1988, despite heavy rain on Saturday morning.
"I was praying that we'd have enough people going through the tents that it wouldn't look like a graveyard," McLemore said. "So when I saw all those cars in the parking lot, and many of the license plates were from Missouri, it was fantastic."
The festival has been held every year since, except for 2009, when it was canceled because of organizational problems and a poor economy.
It has always been held in the park, except for 1993, when it was moved to a vacant building because of continuous heavy rain.
"The ground was absolutely saturated," McLemore said. "The pegs would not stay in the ground, and that's what anchored the tents."
In the past 26 years, the Midwest Salute to the Arts has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors to Fairview Heights.
Just as important to Kassing is that it gets families, business owners and other volunteers involved, creating a sense of community togetherness and pride.
"It's a showpiece for Fairview Heights," said mayor Gail Mitchell. "It brings a lot of people to the city.
"I usually go and meet all the artists and see how they're doing. They rave about our local restaurants and the warm feeling they get from our parks department."
At a glance
What: 25th Midwest Salute to the Arts
Where: Moody Park (formerly Longacre) in Fairview Heights
When: 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Information: Call 618-632-1102 or visit www.midwestsalute.com
Midwest Salute to the Arts entertainment schedule
7 to 9 p.m. -- Erin Bode
10 a.m. to noon -- Stephen Korietta
10 a.m. to noon -- Revence Band
12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Ethan Jones
12:30 to 2:30 p.m. -- Carrier Tunes
3 to 5 p.m. -- Kim Massie
3 to 5 p.m. -- Turpentine
11 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. -- Turpentine
11 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. -- Revence Band
1 to 2:45 p.m. -- Perry Thebeau
1 to 2:45 p.m. -- Lenny Frisch
3 to 4:45 p.m. -- Mark Biehl
3 to 4:45 p.m. -- Graham Pagano