“I want every creative, free art program to be a success,” says Johanna Hagarty, the founder and executive director of economic development brand Xpand and its namesake festival.
However, in recent months LAAF, Mountain Sports Festival and All Go West announced plans for discontinuation or hiatus. Hagarty, a longtime local arts event producer in Asheville, has worked with some of those groups in the past. Bringing Xpand Fest, now in its third year, on board as those other institutions were facing transitions helped her understand how to give her fete more flexibility. To succeed, “We have to find the viable models, especially in the changing landscape,” Hagarty says.
This year’s Xpand Fest takes place Saturday, June 8, in the South Slope neighborhood. Nashville-based funk-rock collective Dynamo headlines a lineup of otherwise Asheville-area entertainment, such as The Get Right Band (indie-rock), April B & The Cool (indie-soul), The Digs (nu-soul/funk), Eleanor Underhill & Friends (eclectic folk), Magenta Sunshine (indie-soul) and many others. An after-party follows at Ben’s Tune Up with Sister Ivy (soul-jazz). Daytime festivities include a scavenger hunt, lantern parade and drop-in day care.
The location of the festival is intentional: Three years ago, the South Slope “was an up-and-coming area and was needing some light shone on it,” says Hagarty. “It was also an area that had a lot of diversity unrest — it was historically a black community, and then it was gentrified.”
While the lasting effects of redlining and urban renewal still need healing, these days the south end of Coxe Avenue and surrounding streets are “vibing and thriving,” in Hagarty’s view. She’s open to the idea of moving the festival to other locations, such as deeper into the Southside neighborhood (of which the South Slope is a part).
Right now, “diversity and equity are in the hot seat, as they should be,” Hagarty says, both of the local arts scene and citywide conversations. “Finding organic ways of being diverse and bringing in all types of populations and communities has been our work from the get-go.” This year, she says, is yielding even more such contributions — from artists of color mounting installations to AARP (the interest group known for empowering aging people) and BeLoved Asheville (a nonprofit seeking to end homelessness, poverty and racism) among groups producing engagement activities.
“All of these different pockets of people realize there’s merit in community building,” says Hagarty. “And there’s merit in using Xpand Fest’s blank canvas.”
A significant brushstroke on said canvas is the headlining band. Booking Dynamo, a nationally touring act with top billing was a strategic move: “We want a little bit of nationwide recognition for what we’re doing” in terms of press potential, Hagarty explains. “It brings more attention to the local Xpand Fest, and everything else [we] get to talk about is how the money stays here or goes to local vendors or goes to local performers.” (Over half of the festival’s finances go to pay its artists, and the plan for proceeds is to fund arts access grants for underserved communities.)
Last year’s heavyweight was Big Sam’s Funky Nation. That band’s namesake trombonist reported that “all small festivals should pay attention to what Xpand Fest is doing,” according to Hagarty — a sentiment she hopes the musician will share on his travels.
But the main intent is to draw attention and support to the Asheville-area art scene and, Hagarty is learning, the best way to do that might mean evolving the free festival model. “We’re figuring out how to bring customers directly to [our sponsors] through the thousands of people we’re bringing here,” she says. Inspired by the 2017 Entrepreneurial Impact of Asheville’s Outdoor Special Events study, “I want to be able to capture return on investments for businesses in the footprint, for vendors at the event, for performers who get onstage.”
Sponsors and nonprofits at Xpand Fest don’t just hang a banner over the stage or set up a table full of brochures. They have a chance to interact meaningfully with festivalgoers. This year, activations (a term being used at events nationwide to describe connection-building activities), will be enacted by Octopus Garden, Empyrean Arts, Street Creature Puppets, The Adé Project, Toybox Theatre, Mountain Circus Arts and others.
“It’s really important for me to see, behind the scenes, how the economy is being driven by the arts,” Hagarty says. “Because that’s how we’ll keep it going.”
WHAT: Xpand Fest, xpandbrand.org
WHERE: South Slope neighborhood
WHEN: Saturday, June 8, noon-10 p.m. Free to attend; donations encouraged