Though the event will stay on the eclectic thoroughfare that gave LAAFF its original name, “Lexington Avenue” has been officially dropped from the festival’s title.
Once a fundraiser for the nonprofit Arts2People and its programs, the festival lost enough money last fall to put its future in doubt. Now a new, community-based effort is taking control of the annual one-day festival, currently in its twelfth year. Called the LAAFF Directorate, it’s made up of roughly 20 downtown business owners, arts-sector members, concerned citizens and festival goers.
Its members heeded a call for help shortly after Arts2People, the festival’s producer, issued a Sept. 5 plea for financial assistance. The 2012 LAAFF accrued crippling debts, when organizers say they incurred several last minute and unforeseen expenditures.
LAAF didn’t bring in as much money as organizers had predicted, and a pre-fest bar crawl proved unsuccessful. These debts, collectively over $15,000, were severe enough to potentially kill off the festival, said Jen Gordon, then-director of Arts2People.
Gordon posted a follow-up letter on Nov. 15, seeking public input. “In the effort to ensure the sustainability and continuity of LAAFF, Arts2People would like to give the event to you, the community, to design,” she said. “LAAFF has always been a celebration of you and your creative, entrepreneurial spirit and we would like for you to consider joining forces with a newly forming re-visioning team to help us re-imagine this event.”
Volunteers collected and began sharing ideas via social media. That online discussion became the festival’s new planning committee, operating as an A2P subcommittee, a “Directorate.” As the official event organizers, they agreed to assume the debts from the 2012 festival.
The new Directorate members are Kitty Love, Paul Van Heden, Aaron Johnstone, Cat Shepard and Aslan Cray, who’ve been added to the Arts2People board. They join Susan and Tim Griffin, Tracie Ackerman, Cate Mavrill and Jennifer Gordon. The existing board will largely take a back seat to the new members’ planning.
Such a large group effort has created a huge organizational advantage, according to Directorate member Sam Spears. “Instead of one person taking care of everything, we have a core group, a community,” she says. “It makes for a better outcome.”
Since January, they’ve been working in subcommittees, each responsible for restructuring individual components of LAAFF’s physical and conceptual foundations. And the name, of course. “We dropped the title because [the festival’s] not just for Lexington Avenue,” Paul Van Heden told Xpress. “It’s a celebration of all things Asheville.”
Changing the name also lends a view to the festival’s future growth. The group aims to expand LAAFF in ways that envelop Asheville’s vast cultural oddities, but also makes room for more musicians, artists and sponsors in coming years. This year, they’ll be keeping the same N. Lexington Avenue footprint.
The directorate is reevaluating sponsorships, musical performances and vending, and has rewritten the manifesto. It’ll be premiered with updated sponsorship, vendor and artist applications set to go out at the beginning of May.
Organizers are turning to transformational festivals, such as Burning Man, for organizational information. That is to say, they envision the reincarnated LAAFF as a completely interactive festival, one in which attendees are invited and immersed into an experience, rather than as viewers of a spectacle.
“An arts festival shouldn’t be a spectators event,” says Van Heden. “You go, and you’re part of the scene yourself. You put on the padded suite and go bike jousting. Or grab someone and start dancing, bottle some juice and share it with somebody.”
With Bele Chere’s future uncertain, Van Heden says that it’s important to evaluate and fine-tune LAAFF — to keep it sustainable and local, yet fresh. “Asheville needs to have a defining festival,” he says.
“A local festival: that’s what it’s always been,” says Spears. And as our city grows, the festival needs to grow to match the cultural shifts. She cited last years’ pub crawl and musical acts as thinking in the right direction.
The festival is drastically different from it’s block-party-esque beginnings, and continues to evolve, organizers say.
While last year proved difficult, the Directorate sees 2012 as part of the greater experiment. “It was a bump in the road,” says Aaron Johnstone. “Growing pains.”
It’s with this mindset that they’re working through this year’s festival, with fresh eyes and renewed confidence.
“You shouldn’t leave the festival and say ‘Hey, ya know what I saw?’” Van Heden says. “It should be ‘Hey, ya know what I did?”
What went wrong
A few days after the September festival, A2P Executive Director Jennifer Gordon posted a brief letter on the Arts2People website. She expressed gratitude for the continuing support, but noted misfortunes:
“As the event grows and we look at ways to try to make the event profitable for all involved, we are forced to take many risks. This year’s list of risks did not pay off and we are in a position that might mean we won’t be able to continue to have this event.”
The biggest of these risks was paying the performers. For the first time, A2P wrote checks to performing artists. The total bill reached nearly $13,000. These payments were supposed to be subsidized by the Pre-LAAFF-a-thon Pub Crawl. The evening event partnered with seven downtown bars, each of which hosted a different event or musical act. Tickets had been on sale for weeks, but the evening was poorly attended, and only raised $3,550 of the total goal.
Matters were further complicated after high-rise cyclist and festival co-founder Michael Mooney withdrew from the festival, following differences in organizational ideologies. He took with him the power poles needed to provide extra electricity for the festival. Mooney owns the poles that had been used every year. Instead, LAAFF needed a last-minute power hook-up from Asheville-based electric company M. B. Haynes. Electrical services depleted an extra $1,200 from the budget. This was on top of the roughly $2,300 generator rental. Neither were anticipated costs.
There was also a city-mandated expansion of the festival’s footprint. Crowds have grown each year, but the festival has kept its boundaries to Lexington Avenue. Estimates for the 2012 crowd were around 30,000. In September 2012, Gordon told Xpress that multiple city agencies, including the AFD, had asserted concerns over safety during the event while A2P was filing for permits.
In order to receive the correct permits, the festival had to expand, she said. Broadway was out of the question, as was going past the highway or across Patton. This left the festival to expand up Walnut and onto Rankin Avenue. Vendors, many who were new to the festival, were pushed up the hill — and many say they saw decreased foot traffic as a result. Expanding also required extra security, blockades and barriers, and extensive electrical hookups. These additional expenses were not factored into the projected budget.
All in all, the festival owed $15,221: about half to vendors, and about half for LAAFF staff and organizers ($7,501 to Able Rent-a-Jon, Danny’s Dumpsters, Jack’s Boxes, MB Haynes and Mountain Xpress for festival expenses, and $7,720 for staff and affiliate labor). Organizers say they hope to know by May 22 who has been paid, and which debts have been settled.