Pop quiz: There’s no such thing as a free ______.
C) downtown street festival.
Organizers of the Lexington Avenue Arts and Fun Festival would be quick to answer “C,” a notion that’s been clear from the festival’s inception but became all too real in the wake of the 2012 celebration.
In order to showcase the distinctive qualities of Asheville through interactive events, quality food, family activities, local hand-crafted art, performance and music year after year, LAAFF relies almost wholly on revenue from sponsorship, vendor fees and sales from beer. The beer is purchased from local breweries and sold on-site to raise funds for LAAFF and Arts 2 People, the nonprofit organization that puts on the annual festival, which returns for its 13th edition Sunday, Sept. 6.
“Sponsorship is the only realm where revenue can be expected to significantly increase,” says Aaron Johnstone, president and treasurer of Arts 2 People. The nonprofit also sponsors Aurora Studio and Gallery, which provides art classes for people who have struggled with addiction or mental illness, and awards mini-grants to local artists and organizations seeking creative ways to strengthen the community. “We are very grateful to all our sponsors, big and small, who help support our mission of promoting our local creative culture,” says Johnstone. “However, it is a challenge — both in the amount of time required and the potential burden on our local small-business owners — to generate that sponsorship revenue.”
The only year that LAAFF was unable to raise enough money to cover costs was 2012. That year, the city of Asheville required the festival to expand its footprint due to concerns about overcrowding Lexington Avenue. The added expense was somewhat offset by additional vendors’ fees, but Johnstone says many vendors were disappointed in the lack of crowds on the added area of Rankin Avenue.
That same year also was the first in which participating bands were paid, a decision that fulfilled a longtime goal for the organizers. A ticketed, pre-event pub crawl — intended to generate the revenue to cover the 60-plus groups that played over the weekend — failed to raise even a quarter of the total amount needed. Additionally, beer sales did not meet previous years’ levels and, due to unforeseen circumstances, several thousand dollars were spent on power generators.
Happily, the narrative takes an upbeat turn for this year’s event. This year’s LAAFF “will find itself pollinating the urban landscape of Lexington Avenue … with new partnerships and a vision toward a more community-minded festival,” reports a press release. A partnership with French Broad Food Co-op gives LAAFF food vendors the option of purchasing products at wholesale prices. The co-op is also is co-producing a weeklong series of workshops leading up to the festival. Among the topics to be discussed are sustainability, creativity and education about insects (e.g., composting and bee care) to fit this year’s Urban Pollination theme.
Also new in 2015 is a medieval castle that will host a foam swordplay competition, an interactive instrument station and giveaways from first-time sponsor Moog Music and a food lounge, sponsored by Valet Gourmet, where patrons may sit and enjoy a snack or meal.
Lows and highs
There was a time when the festival’s future looked grim. Due to loss of several key members of the LAAFF team and the budget deficit, the efforts to produce LAAFF in 2013 were deemed too risky. The time off, however, proved beneficial as it allowed organizers a chance to regroup and develop the LAAFF Manifesto, which, in the words of LAAFF communications director Johanna Hagarty, “guides the event toward being a participatory, innovative, art-focused street festival that strengthens our local community.” The hiatus also brought forth a great show of encouragement from Lexington Avenue merchants who missed the festival and were instrumental in its return.
“Due to that tremendous support and an influx of new energy and team members, including very successful management of the beer sales and fantastic sponsorship coordination, 2014 was a great success, which allowed us to pay off remaining debt,” Johnstone says. He notes the exception of past pay owed to “some very important staff,” which he hopes LAAFF can one day honor.
But while there is a lot of volunteer effort and many services are donated, a number of costs remain to successfully bring the festival back for 2015. Permits, barricades and road closure signage must be acquired, as well as electrical equipment, tents, tables, chairs, stages, sound systems, Porta-Johns, trash/recycling/compost cleanup and disposal, insurance, advertising, banners and posters. On top of that, the city requires the hiring of medical personnel and police, joining the workforce of subcontractors who handle electrical installation, setup, barricade security, music production and booking, volunteer coordination, artist hospitality and the aforementioned compensation of bands, performers and interactive artists.
“Many festivals and events deal with these same elements,” Johnstone says. “But the size and scale of LAAFF, while being free and open to the public and located on city streets, presents unique challenges.”
Among these specialized hurdles is the coordination of over 60 art vendors, 15-20 food vendors and more than 30 performing acts, plus setting up all the interactive and kids events in city streets and parking lots with limited access by vehicle. To ensure that the festival will be welcomed back the following year, all of that must be done while respecting the needs of brick-and-mortar merchants on the street and meeting city safety requirements (e.g., fire lanes, electrical cord protection, tent layout and tie-down specs). Furthermore, there’s the five-hour setup and equally long breakdown of the mandatory road closure signs and barricades, which makes for 20-plus-hour days for many of LAAFF’s core staff.
Such a commitment is worthwhile for people like Hagarty, who has worked with LAAFF in small capacities since she moved to Asheville in 2008 and has consistently found what she calls “the creative uniqueness” of the event to be one of the most special things about the city. “I even remember calling my mom after helping with the first one,” she says.”[I felt] so invigorated that I was a part of this town that supports education and sustainability in such a fun way.”
WHAT: LAAFF, facebook.com/lexfest
WHERE: Lexington Avenue between College Street and the I-240 overpass
WHEN: Sunday, Sept. 6, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Free