Free local summer festival takes on global issues

BAND TOGETHER: Last year, Asheville’s South Slope District saw the first Xpand Fest, a free community event dedicated to good music, good beer and do-gooding. The event returns June 9 with more opportunities for engagement. Photo by Drew Deporter

With a beer in one hand and a taco in the other, most festivalgoers aren’t thinking about multigenerational poverty or climate change when their favorite band takes the stage. But Asheville-based event planner Johanna Hagarty wants to change that.

As executive director and founder of the arts nonprofit Xpand Your Vision, Hagarty created last year’s Xpand Fest, a free community event with a do-good bent. Now in its second year, the celebration is scheduled for Saturday, June 9, in the South Slope district.

Speaking of favorite bands onstage, this year’s lineup includes funk, jazz, rock and hip-hop collective Big Sam’s Funky Nation, from New Orleans, along with local artists Window Cat, Pink Mercury, Ashley Heath and Her Heathens, Ryan “RnB” Barber, Alex Krug and many others. Street Creature Puppets, Toybox Theatre, the Wandering Swordsmen and more roving acts will perform throughout the festival.

But this is thoughtful fun: “Xpand Fest highlights music and art as an innovative tool toward inclusive development and social change,” says Hagarty. “It was created to expand people’s vision of all art disciplines and to celebrate their profound societal impact locally and globally.”

The event was founded on 17 sustainable development goals for addressing economic growth and making social change. Adopted by world leaders in 2015, these goals make up the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a 15-year framework to end poverty, inequality and tackle environmental degradation. Lofty and overarching, they touch on things like “inclusive and quality education for all” and “sustainable consumption and production patterns.” Though no country is legally bound to achieve these goals, all citizens are expected to pull their weight.

Xpand Fest supports these efforts by galvanizing action and providing a creative platform for conversation. Come showtime, dozens of nonprofit organizations, healing arts establishments and other thought-leading businesses are represented on the South Slope. But rather than distribute brochures or swag, each vendor plans an interactive activity. A land conservancy, for instance, might have passers-by plant a seed, or an animal shelter might use a doggy kissing booth to speak on adoption.

“This gives [attendees] an authentic way to know their local businesses and creatives,” says Morgan Markowitz, Xpand Fest’s operations director. “We believe that building healthy communities requires education, but that to sustain and uplift those healthy communities, you need to ensure education is fun, authentic and organic.”

Since most Asheville-based events are hosted in the heart of downtown, Markowitz and Hagarty chose the South Slope, an up-and-coming but lesser-acknowledged area, for a home base.

“We realized it was a fast-growing area of our town,” says Markowitz. “It has a lot of new development, but there’s also a lot of history, graffiti and local charm in the area. When we started meeting with local businesses that would be impacted by the event, they were excited by what we wanted to do. We knew we had found the right place.”

The festival footprint spans Buxton to Coxe avenues. Neighbors ZaPow Gallery and Octopus Garden will host indoor stages, and the main stage will be on Coxe Avenue in front of Open Hearts Art Center. The Instant Karma Bus will also host music on its rooftop, and Urban Orchard Cider Co. and Bar, which has taken over the Eagles Nest Outfitters building, will have performances on its loading dock. That’s five total stages for acts such as Gypsy Grass, Hannah Kaminer, Doss Church, Paper Crowns and others.

With the event garnering national attention, organizers are pioneering new ways to grow and improve. Like any first-time festival, last year’s shindig had some hiccups, chiefly related to what Hagarty calls “flow.” The action took place on Banks and Buxton avenues, and attendees struggled to move from one activity to another, drifting somewhat listlessly between shows. “We had hoped that the small walkways and alleys would connect the two streets enough for festivalgoers, but even with adequate signage and a clear program, people had a challenge finding the stages,” she says.

Traffic issues aside, organizers believe the first Xpand Fest was wildly successful. Honoring Sustainable Development Goal No. 11, to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable,” volunteers placed 2 tons of gravel in one of the event parking lots to prevent further erosion. They also used as many compostable wares as possible, provided recycling and composting options, and promoted reusable water bottles. (Organizers even set a goal to move toward a standard of zero single-use water bottles for future events.)

After the festival, volunteers also engaged in a day of action, picking up trash and “making the place a little better off than we left it,” says Hagarty, because, at its roots, that’s what Xpand Fest is all about: building a better community, locally and beyond.

“We want Asheville to come out and be part of the South Slope neighborhood,” says Hagarty. “Our event is here to remind Asheville that the local arts scene is thriving, and we are giving that scene a home and a voice that is inevitably stronger together than individually.”

WHAT: Xpand Fest,
WHERE: Buxton and Coxe avenues
WHEN: Saturday, June 9, noon-10 p.m. Free


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About Lauren Stepp
Lauren Stepp is an award-winning writer with bylines here in these mountains and out yonder, too.

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