In 2019, over 70,000 people joyously flooded the historic Courthouse Square to attend the Double Decker Arts Festival — an annual celebration of Oxford’s illustrious artistic, musical and culinary scene.
“Originally inspired by the Double Decker bus that Oxford imported from England in 1994, the festival showcases Oxford as a town that supports the arts and has grown to be one of the champion events in the region,” Lee Ann Stubbs, Double Decker coordinator, said.
After a three year hiatus due to COVID-19, this year’s two-day festival looks to attract a vast audience, featuring over 100 art vendors and 20-plus local food vendors, in addition to offering a wide variety of musical acts.
Before garnering game day-like attendance and becoming one of Oxford’s most reliable traditions, the Double Decker Arts Festival’s unprecedented success was not always a sure bet.
In 1995, now-Mayor Robyn Tannehill — at an impressive 24 years old — became the director of the Oxford Tourism Council, immediately focusing her self-determination and high-minded ambition toward creating the city’s modern-day equivalent of Woodstock, hoping to fill a void within the city’s lack of springtime festivities.
“In March, we had the Red-Blue Football Game. In May, we had graduation, but April was largely empty,” Tannehill said. “So we picked a slow weekend where we could boost our hotel-stays and give our local restaurants and bars a well-needed shot-in-the-arm.”
In addition to showcasing Oxford’s budding cultural venues, Tannehill and her creative team envisioned a festival that would be city-funded, take place on a Saturday and be completely free to the public — college students and families alike.
These ideas wound up being much easier said than done.
“City government at the time was not so receptive to people being downtown potentially drinking beer while streets were closed,” Tannehill said.
Through the help and influence of local friends and business owners, Tannehill was able to close the Square for an all-day Saturday event. But populating those streets, with performers and participants alike, became a different story.
As Tannehill vowed for the festival to remain free to the public, she sought to raise the money through sponsorship deals, from the likes of Coca-Cola and Budweiser.
The beer company, however, appeared to be confounded by Tannehill’s seemingly incongruous request: sponsoring a festival where not a single drop of alcohol would be sold.
“I wanted all the beer to be sold in bars and restaurants, so that the local businesses profited,” said Tannehill. “From the beginning, it was important to me that the event itself remain family-friendly.”
Fortunately, Tannehill stuck to her guns. Budweiser eventually agreed to sponsor the event and remains a sponsor to this day.
In its first year, Double Decker faced several logistical challenges. With unlikely solutions, from hand-making each and every banner, to using an 18-wheeler rig as a makeshift stage, and spending the advertising budget to fly in writers from across the country, they were overcome.
Despite these challenges, Tannehill’s candid optimism paved the way for a major success as 1996’s inaugural Double Decker Arts Festival garnered over 9,000 people in attendance.
Double Decker began with the bed of an old pickup truck serving as a music stage and only a handful of art and food vendors. Twenty-seven years later, a mere aspirational goal has transformed into one of Oxford’s beloved communal experiences year after year.
“We are so excited that 2022 is going to be the biggest and best Double Decker yet,” Tannehill said. “After devastatingly having to cancel the festival twice in a row, it’s only driven us to make sure that this one is unforgettable.”
This year’s Double Decker will feature art from Hi Yall! Made in the South, Sabrina Ewing Art, Whitney Winkler Art and many other artists. Food vendors include Bling Pig Pub and Deli, Taylor Grocery Special Events catering and Walk-On’s.
For more information on the upcoming events and historic significance of the festival, visit the Double Decker website and follow them on Facebook and Instagram @doubledeckerfestival.