Break out the bikini top (and remember to slather on plenty of sunscreen)—summer is finally here and that means one thing: festival season is officially upon us.
While plenty of art lovers will make their way to Frieze and Art Basel this year, we’re betting there are more than a few festival-goers who want less commercialism in their summer fun.
Below, readers will find our picks for the best oddball summer festivals of 2023, which include a “must-see” mermaid parade, street art galore, and a glow-in-the-dark forest. With no further ado, we present the NOT REAL ART 2023 summer festival guide. Scroll through to read our picks—then get in touch and tell us what we missed!
A 14-day celebration of underground theater, music, art, and film, Ohio’s Fringe Festival is a treat for Midwestern weirdos who are sick of standard craft fairs. Like other “fringe” festivals, Cincy Fringe gives independent artists a chance to present experimental media and avant-garde productions to an audience with an appetite for the strange and unusual.
When: June 2 – 17, 2023
Where: Cincinnati, Ohio
Founded in 1983, Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade has marked the beginning of summer in the city ever since. The parade opens the season with a fin-tastic array of sea creatures, mer-folk, marching bands, and mechanized floats that celebrate NYC’s creativity, imagination, and adventurous spirit. As one of the nation's largest and strangest art events, the Mermaid Parade tops the list of “must-see” events in NYC every year, which is quite a feat in a city that famously never sleeps.
When: June 17, 2023
Where: Coney Island, New York
Pageant of the Masters + Festival of Arts
Fans of Arrested Development might remember the sitcom’s Living Classics Pageant spoof where a tween-age Michael Cera reenacts Michaelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” wearing a pair of jean shorts instead of the requisite codpiece. No such scandal has ever occurred at Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters (to our knowledge), which treats viewers to 90 minutes of classic art, original music, and storytelling nightly during its eight-week Festival of Arts. Enacted by real people and accompanied by a professional orchestra, intricate set designs, and live narration, these tableaux vivants (or living pictures) bring classic and contemporary works of art to life like no other production in the world; we promise you’ll only miss the cutoffs a little.
When: July 7 – Sept. 1
Where: Laguna Beach, California
Founded in 2011, Electric Forest is a multi-genre music festival that incorporates audience participation into the light shows and art installations of Sherman Forest. The festival intentionally blurs the line between event organizers and participants to create a sense of community rarely felt at crowded events. If you’re looking for comradery while you listen to your favorite jam bands under a magical forest canopy, this festival might be just the ticket.
When: June 22 – 25, 2023
Where: Rothbury, Michigan
The founders of Comic-Con believe populist art deserves its moment in the limelight like any other genre, and we couldn’t agree more. Spanning comics (of course), films, and literature, Comic-Con gives sci-fi fans a chance to geek out over their favorite authors and artists without feeling shamed by the gallery set. The convention includes an exhibit hall, workshops, awards, an autograph area, film screenings, and a masquerade costume competition with prizes and trophies. Where do we sign up?
When: July 20 – 23, 2023
Where: San Diego, California
No list of alternative art festivals would be complete without Burning Man, but veteran “burners” will tell you the weeklong event at Black Rock City isn’t a festival; it’s a “community and global cultural movement” that takes place every summer under the hot Nevada sun. Coinciding with Labor Day weekend, Burning Man is the perfect place to kick off your shoes and forget the drudgery of cubicles and crisp white shirts. You won’t find Black Rock City on a map, but the temporary metropolis, constructed by thousands of artists and burners every year, provides a creative oasis for those in the middle of a dry spell.
When: Aug. 27 – Sept. 4, 2023
Where: Black Rock Desert, Nevada
Sunny Dayz Mural Festival
Founded in 2021, Sunny Dayz is a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower, elevate, and celebrate women and non-binary artists through the creation of public art. They provide equitable opportunity and wages, dedicated wall space for “newbies,” and a teen membership program that supports female and non-binary students in the arts.
When: Sept. 9, 2023
Where: Tulsa, Oklahoma
BLKOUT WALLS Mural Festival
Founded in 2021, Detroit’s BLKOUT WALLS was created by Sydney G James and Max Sansing to address the racial disparity and lack of compensation both muralists experienced while participating in outdoor art festivals. The organization provides meals, lodging, and transportation to festival artists, as well as payment for completed murals. A biannual, family-friendly event, BLKOUT WALLS seeks to mirror the demographics of Detroit and is open to artists of color across the United States.
When: Sept 7 – 17, 2023
Where: Detroit, Michigan
Meeting of Styles
The graffiti festival to end all graffiti festivals, Meeting of Styles is a non-profit organization that supports graffiti artists and events worldwide, Founded in 1997, Meeting of Styles aims to create a forum for the international urban art community to offer assistance and exchange ideas. The events span major cities in both Europe and the US and are open to all artists working under the umbrella of “urban art.” Stop by Chi-Town in September for their States-side event, which is sure to be a showstopper.
When: Sept. 15 – 17, 2023
Where: Chicago, Illinois
Renegade Craft Tour
Renegade Craft showcases independent art and craft across the States, hosting multiple events in major cities every year. This summer their team is headed to three cities: Chicago, Seattle, and Brooklyn. Check their 2023 schedule to apply for a booth or snag your sister a pair of handmade jade earrings.
When: Various dates; see 2023 schedule
Where: Chicago, Seattle, Brooklyn