“Never say die,” reads the poster for the Lexington Avenue Art and Fun Festival, which returns Sunday, Aug. 31, after a one-year hiatus. When the beloved (and, in recent years, beleaguered) event’s return was announced earlier this summer, it was as a last hurrah. Organizers Kitty Love (LAAFF’s co-founder, who’s now executive director of the Asheville Area Arts Council), Franzi Charen (director of the Asheville Grown Business Alliance) and Jennifer Pickering (founder and executive director of LEAF) were already hatching a new festival concept for 2015, with a broader direction and bigger footprint, and there was some mention of “the last LAAFF.” Recently, however, Love told Xpress, “Merchants on the street want the name to live on,” which may account for the poster’s cryptic additional wording: “The death and rebirth of the legend of Lexington Avenue.”
“We’ve had a lot of support from the community. People realized they missed it,” says Aaron Johnstone, president of Arts2People. LAAFF was canceled in 2013 due to a money crunch. The festival’s profits come from sponsorships, vendor booth fees and beer sales, Johnstone explains, and beer revenue is particularly hard to predict from year to year. In 2012, LAAFF planners had launched their most ambitious strategy to date, including an expanded footprint with a third stage, a food truck lot and a ticketed mini-music fest. Sales fell short of expectations, however, creating additional financial pressure.
But this year, says Johnstone, “We’ve had some very generous support from Lexington Avenue merchants. Also, Henco Reprographics and Valet Gourmet are major sponsors.” So LAAFF will return with more than a dozen bands, including stephaniesid, The Fritz, Rising Appalachia’s Leah Song, Lazybirds and more. There’ll also be fire dancing, circus performers, a kids area featuring the LEAF in Schools and Streets Easel Rider, a soapbox car race course, an Asheville on Bikes corral for those who arrive at the festival on two wheels, and plenty of local food and drink.
In 2003, Love described the previous year’s inaugural LAAFF as “this giant force of nature that kind of bubbled up out of the ground and insisted on happening.” A year later, Love (who then owned Sky People Gallery and Design Studio) told Xpress that the annual event would “help to stimulate and propagate the kind of culture we would enjoy living in” — and she was right.
The festival grew steadily for nearly a decade, working its way farther up Lexington, adding vendors and performers, a program to green the festival, additional stages, and activities ranging from bicycle jousting to skateboarding, from butoh performances to marching bands. “A common misconception … is that LAAFF started as a response to Bele Chere,” organizer Erin Scholze said in 2005. “That’s completely not true. It started as a way to showcase our community. We’re trying to attract people to see what we already have in Asheville, not what we can bring in from outside.”
Looking to the future, she said, “I can see the festival eventually expanding beyond Lexington Avenue,” but added, perhaps prophetically, “It can only expand as far as the people in the community will let it.”
According to Johnstone, though, there’s talk about how to keep the event going in its current form beyond this year as well. “LAAFF is something that’s been loved by the community,” he says. “The Lexington Avenue merchants really came forward, saying, ‘Hey, we miss having this on our street and we’d like to be a part of bringing it back.’ There’s an ongoing conversation happening — if the support is there, [LAAFF] will continue.”
WHAT: LAAFF, facebook.com/lexfest
WHERE: Lexington Avenue from the I-240 overpass to College Street
WHEN: Sunday, Aug. 31, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Free