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Massive. Huge and large. These are some of the adjectives that people use to describe the Utah Arts Festival.

This time around, those words have an even greater meaning. "It's a Big Deal" is this year's theme for the 20th anniversary of the annual summertime festival.The Utah Arts Festival will run Thursday through Sunday, June 27-30, at the Triad Center, 300 W. South Temple. Hours will be noon to midnight Thursday through Friday and noon to 10 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults and $2 for seniors. Children under 12 get in free. There is also a lunchtime special Thursday and Friday from noon to 3 p.m., when general admission will be $2.

"When it started, it was meant for everyone," said R. Lee Roberts, festival assistant director. "All types of people who attended really made this a community event. And that remains true today."

Back in 1976, the country was celebrating its bicentennial. A federal grant was issued to all 50 states, said Roberts.

"Some of that money was used to put on the first festival," he said. "The rest of the money went to the building of Abravanel Hall, the Salt Lake Art Center and the renovation of the Capitol Theatre. It just seems ironic that on this 20th year, the federal funding for the arts is being cut way back."

Still, Utah made a name for itself and the festival in the last 20 years. It even won the Pinnacle Award for promotion a few years ago, beating even the Kentucky Derby Festival.

Even the number of volunteers has increased. During the first festival, only a handful of volunteers handled the event's building, set up and maintenance. Now more than 900 people lend their time.

"I got involved by hanging scaffolding and building stages back in 1989," said Roberts. "All of a sudden, I turned around and found myself an assistant director."

Art of all genres will be presented during the four-day run. These include culinary arts featuring buffalo burgers, bagels, Thai chicken, Navajo tacos, Italian calzones, Philly steak sandwiches, Scandinavian desserts and Russian dishes - borscht, golybtzi and pel-meny.

Visual arts will be highlighted by Exhibition: 1996 "20/20," a display in the Union Pacific Depot featuring the creations of 20 of Utah's finest visual artists, who at one time had their works presented in the Arts Festival since its inception in 1976.

"We wanted to pull back as many artists as we could who participated with us in the last 20 years," Roberts explained.

More displays will include an anniversary sand sculpture of Main Street - the way it looked when the arts festival was first introduced to Salt Lake City - and a huge tapestry comprising the 20 different festival logos that will be draped over the Triad Center parking garage.

The performing artists will include national and local music. Utah County's a cappella group Extempo and jazz ensemble BRIDJJ will be on hand as well as Salt Lake's own Cottonwood, Harry Lee and Kate MacLeod. National acts include Laurie Anderson, Pamela Z and slide guitarist/vocalist Ben Harper, who will be on hand Friday night.

"It's just the feeling of making music that got me interested in playing," Harper told the Deseret News. "Music is so inspirational and keeps me sane. It's a universal language that can be the strongest forms of communication in the universe."

Music is an art form that thrives on emotion, Harper said.

"I write what I feel," he said. "The music comes from me. I don't try to write for others, but music will touch others in different ways. It's a natural thing. There are natural balances in what I do. I'm not too political, but at the same time, there are issues I'm trying to talk about. Music is one way to do that."

Harper's new album is called "Fight for Your Mind," a theme every serious artist ponders now and then. His earthy blues and acoustic slides are appreciated by everyone from blues lovers to modern rock mongers to folk audiences.

"My music is universal," he said. He will play the plaza stage Friday at 10 p.m. His band features bassist Juan Nelson, drummer Oliver Charles and percussionist Leon Lewis Mobley.

Orem's BRIDJJ is comprised of five of the state's most noted jazz musicians, said brass player Bob Taylor.

"We knew each other at BYU," he said. "We were all part of the Synthesis jazz ensemble in the late '70s. We went our separate ways and after about seven years and a lot of moving, I looked everyone up."

The band - Taylor, guitarist Rich Dixon, keyboardist Dan Waldis, bassist Jim Stout and drummer Jay Lawrence - got serious and began practicing.

"At first we had a hard time getting together, and still do," said Taylor. "But we got our schedule down enough to put out an album."

"Beat the Rats" was released a few weeks ago and has been on the lips of every jazz lover in the state.

"I got into jazz because of the freedom to improvise," said Taylor. "And you really have to be good. My roots are in classical and if you know it, you know it. Jazz is more free. You can fool some people who don't really know jazz, but you can't fool everyone. It's helped me musically and creatively."

BRIDJJ will play the plaza stage, Saturday, at 6:30 p.m.

Other performing artists hitting the stage during the festival include the Buddhist Taiko Drummers, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir - which will take amphitheatre stage Thursday at 7 p.m. - the Ballet Folklorico Quetzalcoatl, the Children's Dance Theatre, the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Repertory Dance Theatre, Afrikan American Dance Theatre and the Stage Door Performers.

As with the other years, there will be a children's section for creative interaction. This year, the area will be known as Planet Discover.

"It will be more on interaction," said Roberts. "There will be a stage on which children's groups will perform. I think it will be a nice change for the children who come. I mean kids are told what to do every day. This way they can do different things with people they can relate to. And some of the performing groups will have the other children join them on stage."