The news came on Wednesday evening: Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival will not happen in 2013. The statement from festival director Arieh Samson and the Arts2People board of directors said that they “will use the time between now and Labor Day weekend 2014 to put on LAAFF’s revival and resume celebrating the fascinating culture that exists in our city, Asheville, N.C. We would like to thank everyone for their thoughts, considerations, efforts and collective involvement going into the planning of LAAFF this year, and for the past 11 years. Our community’s celebration will continue as we allow it the time to blossom and give Asheville the LAAFF it deserves.”
The festival is currently slated to return in 2014. Arts2People board president Paul Van Heden points out that other festivals, such as All Go West (also helmed by Samson) have skipped years. Samson, who was involved with programming LAAFF last year, declined to comment and directed questions to Van Heden.
“It’s a real blow. It’s so gut wrenching — LAAFF is such an expression of how downtown Asheville views itself,” Van Heden says. This year would have been the event’s 12th consecutive run. As of early July, it seemed that it was on track. Planners sent out a press release announcing a new website and name (“LAAFF Asheville Street Festival”) and said the Lexington Avenue fete was “scheduled to return in all of its magnificent fur-trimmed, sparkle hooped glory this year” with a “focus on extending programming rather than vendors only on Rankin Avenue” and “a centralized focus to create a participatory, innovative, art-focused, street festival that builds the local community.” A preview party was scheduled for July 25 at the Emerald Lounge, which included a Battle of the Bands to select acts for both LAAFF and DIG Festival. That event has since been rebranded as the Dig Festival Battle of the Bands.
“It makes me really sad that it’s not going to happen this year, but to make it go forward would have disrespected all the work that people put into it,” says Van Heden. “People put their heart and soul in, and deserve the best possible event, and we couldn’t do that this year. So that’s why we had to put it off.” He says that, ideally, it costs about $15,000 to run LAAFF and that while the event is profitable, it had not been so in the past two years.
“Last year it ran at a deficit,” he reports. In fact, following 2012’s festival, organizer Jen Gordon enlisted public help via a Facebook post. Since LAAFF is an Arts2People program, “all of its initial finding would come from us. However, this year, Arts2People is low on funding,” says Van Heden. Van Heden pointed to a larger festival footprint than was feasible, disappointing beer sales and payments to bands as reasons for the lack of profits. He says, “The main thing was the beer sales, far and away. It wasn’t as efficient as it was in previous years.”
But, Van Heden points out, hindsight is easy, and LAAFF has never relied on corporate sponsorships to stay afloat. “It’s done by the community,” he says. “We were hoping maybe the vendors would come through and there would be enough capital. At the end of the day, things just weren’t working.”
Still, even though there were earlier indications that the festival might not return this year (the previous two years’ deficit, among them), so many people wanted the event to happen that planners moved ahead with meetings, zoning and the new web site. “The reason it went forward was because there’s a huge amount of support for this festival,” says Van Heden. Indeed, since its 2001 inception, LAAFF has been known for its celebration of local food and drink, local art and music and its initially-local audience that has, over the years, expanded to include many visitors.
The festival is largely volunteer-run, though Samson, as director (along with a few other staff members) would have been paid had LAAFF turned a profit. At a Friday board meeting, Van Heden says the group will “look at what went wrong and recalibrate for 2014.”
He adds, “It’s really difficult to put on a profitable festival, but a festival does not have to be profitable for the community to derive benefit from it. The point of a festival isn’t just to pitch a particular product. It’s something for a community to come together, to share and experience together and to define their community and why they live in a particular geographic area.” And, even though local festivals have taken a hit — this is Bele Chere‘s last year, at least as a city-sponsored event; and Goombay will not be held in 2013 — Van Heden insists the festival scene, overall, is doing well.
“There needs to be a new view of what a festival is,” he says. “LAAFF is trying to figure out what that is, and we have choices.” Those choices include only accepting local sponsors and making sure contributors are paid a fair wage.
Going forward Van Heden says, “the whole LAAFF festival itself is solid. The issue isn’t that it’s not sustainable. It’s one of the things that is. It just needs a few tiny tweaks.” His hope is that as-yet-to-be-announced fundraisers and more prep work over the next year will provide a base for LAAFF: “It’s going to happen in 2014 and it’s going to be 50 times better.”