A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2017

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How to Plan a Neighborhood Arts Festival

By Candace Brown

 

 

At less than ten square blocks in size, the Proctor District of Tacoma, Washington, might be small, but it knows how to throw a party. And it’s a party that serves the neighborhood well. Every year, on the first Saturday in August, the scene on Proctor Street shimmers like a mirage, with the summer heat and the vibrancy of colors, aromas, music, and the buzz of a crowd. It’s the weekend of the annual Proctor Arts Fest.

Now in its 17th year, this lively event draws thousands of people from all over the area, thanks to its juried art show, high quality arts and crafts vendors, food (the “Bite of Proctor”) and live entertainment on the three performance stages, plus demonstrations and more. It’s a time for family fun, running into friends and neighbors, and feeling community pride while bolstering the economic health of this section of the city. Business districts across the nation, who might want to create an arts festival of their own, can learn plenty from this one.

Local business owner Nancy Frederick chairs the Proctor Arts Fest committee with invaluable help from the Rev. Eugene Kester, Ret. They are both members of the Proctor District Association and have worked side-by-side for years to make this festival happen, watching it grow and demand more effort, even while it brings in greater rewards. It now requires a committee of about 16 members plus dozens of volunteers.

“At first, it was just a few vendors and one performer,” Frederick said. “We left the streets open. So it has grown immensely, from one stage to three and from 30 vendors to 140. It has grown because it pulls in more vendors who want to participate. They hear the word, and that spreads to our audience, the festival attendees.”

 

 

From a humble beginning to a major event

Frederick stressed that those who might consider taking on such a large task should ask themselves why they are doing it. “In our case, we were trying to pull people into the business neighborhood who may not know the Proctor District is there. That’s why it began.” Initially, a festival like this takes six to nine months to organize, she said. They also acquired non-profit status.

The Proctor Arts Fest made its first appearance in 1996 with a simple sidewalk sale and one entertainer. The Proctor Arts Association organized the first juried art show at Mason United Methodist Church. Kester is an active member of the church, which in turn is an active member of the Proctor District Association, and he represents the church in that organization, the entity behind the festival. After the event began to grow, they tried having a manager and hired the owner of a Proctor area bed and breakfast, a woman named Mary Beth King, who had valuable experience in event planning. She served in this capacity for a few years.

“She helped us enormously to professionalize it, because she had this professional experience,” Kester said. “What you see now, all the structure of it, Mary Beth helped us put together. We run it out of the core she created, although we have modified that over time.”

King had connections and was able to bring in other people with professional backgrounds in needed areas. She knew how to work at a professional level. For example, she knew a man named Mike Mitchell, who had experience in running music festivals. He became a member of the committee. Such knowledge helps immensely when it comes to planning, setting up a budget, making decisions, and prioritizing tasks, and Frederick gained that knowledge by working with King. Networking and just knowing people in your community and what they do is the best way to find individuals with specific skills. Then you can hope to recruit them.

Kester added, “We’ve had two district managers, but most of the time it’s been volunteers. We’ve kept thinking that you almost need to have somebody hired for it, but that costs money, and it’s hard enough to raise the money to just do what we do.”

 

 

Finances are the primary concern

Frederick and Kester agree that the main challenge right now is funding. Unlike the city itself, this small business district doesn’t have a huge tax base and budget. It’s an annual headache. For example, a local company that had been providing about $1,000 in sponsorship each year recently decided to make a contribution “in kind” instead. Now, that amount needs to be found elsewhere. Kester has the job of finding sponsorship and, although he feels he has been adequate in his efforts, said it would help to find a volunteer with skills in that specialty, as another way of professionalizing the committee. But that person should come from the community. Again, networking is the key.

“To go beyond your own community is not terribly helpful,” Kester said. “What you need are people in your community who are willing to put their time into it, at least for a period of years, because they have local connections. If you get someone from outside, they have to start from scratch.”

In addition to sponsorship, vendors’ fees make up a large part of the budget, and over the years, the committee has had no choice but to raise those fees. Each 10-by-10 foot tent costs the vendor $100 at the Proctor Arts Fest. But that’s still a bargain compared to some others. One in a nearby town charges $250.00.

Viva la Vendors!

Having a reasonable rate for a tent certainly attracts the vendors, but the beauty of the situation is the circular nature of success; having high quality vendors attracts larger crowds which attract more vendors. All of this adds to the appeal of the arts fest. But there are many competing events threatening to draw away the best of them.

Frederick’s first task on the committee was to manage the vendors, and this remains one of her responsibilities. “When we tried to expand the vendor base, we would go to different fairs and say, ‘We like your product. Would you like to come to us?’” But most vendors sell at numerous festivals and people were telling her that they were already committed elsewhere. She strongly recommends checking community calendars in order to schedule your event it at a time when there isn’t too much competition from others. Vendor applications (see a sample here) appear on the arts fest’s website, beginning in January.

“When you’re starting out cold,” Frederick said, as advice to new festival planners, “you have to figure out where you’re going to put the vendor booths—indoors or outdoors—and figure out how much space you need, how to get a nice layout.” Many vendors want to set up in the same spot each year, so returning customers can find them, and will pay well in advance.  The manager’s job becomes easier as more vendors’ locations become established.

 

 

Keeping the ART in your arts fest – the juried show

The Proctor Arts Fest’s art show, although juried, is a little different than most. Kester likes to call it a “post-juried” show. Everyone who enters their work is accepted and will see their entry put on display, unless it is deemed unsuitable. Then a panel of three judges makes decisions about who will win first, second, and third place awards, plus honorable mention. There is also a People’s Choice Award. Multiple categories—including oil and acrylic, watercolor, photography, pastels, drawing, print, mixed media, and three dimensional—mean plenty of interesting variety, and artists can enter two pieces, as long as they are in different categories. The show requires an entry fee of under $20 and offers cash prizes. Artists can also sell their work.

Unlike the arts fest itself, which takes place only on Saturday, the art show lasts all weekend. It ends on Sunday with an awards reception. This popular feature of the Proctor Arts Fest attracts many visitors and remains a vital part of the picture.

 Managing the live music component

In keeping with the high standards this festival upholds, organizers look for professionalism in entertainers too. How are they found? Word-of-mouth is one way, and observing the music at other events is another. Musicians can always be found by contacting the local musicians union, and those can be found on the website of the American Federation of Musicians. In the case of Proctor, the stage managers have been involved with music and know of local musicians. Being a non-profit organization, they can’t pay what they know musical groups might earn in other venues, but have paid $300 to $1,200 per act. Good sound equipment and experienced technicians add to the quality of the experience for both performers and listeners. This event provides for both in the budget.

Each stage needs an onsite manager, and every person assigned to manage a music stage should have some background in that kind of situation—more professionalism. It is especially important, when scheduling acts, to build in about 15 minutes between them, to allow one band to get their instruments packed up and leave the stage and the next band to set up. This requires cooperation from the musicians themselves, and the stage manager needs to be clear when writing the contract, that the performance time has strict boundaries and things will run on schedule with no exceptions. That means saying “no” to that one extra tune, so one act doesn’t run over into the next act’s allotted time.

 Kimball and the Fugitives

 

Dealing with legal matters and local concerns

Events like art festivals require permits from the city. Permits involve fees, of course, and the amounts can usually be found on the city’s official website. Currently, in Tacoma, permits must be filed 60 days before the event and fees are based on the size of the crowd. (See Tacoma’s fee schedule as an example.)

“And then you have to organize with the fire department,” Frederick said. “Of course, some of this the city does, but they have to tell transit and the police department that the streets are closed, so all the emergency vehicles know they can’t go zipping down Proctor.” When asked about how the process works, she replied, “We tell the city what we would like to do. They work with us a lot, like last year we added the extra block.”

Working with local residents and businesses requires talking to them first and making sure that they will support the effort. The majority of businesses belong to the Proctor District Association, but not all, and all need to be treated with respect and listened to, because it’s going to affect their business for a day.  However, the event can also increase their customer base.

Good communication matters. Frederick advised, “... just talking to people as difficulties come up. Last year we had someone complaining about the number of cars traveling down their narrow residential street. He wanted to know why we couldn’t close different streets to keep the cars off his. We referred him to the city.”

Another concern is liability. Kester said, “The advantage we have is that we are not an entity of our own. We are a committee of the Proctor District Association, who decides it will have an arts fest, and we are the entity that puts that together.” The city covers official city events, but since the business district runs this festival, it must take responsibility. The association buys its own insurance to cover all of the various events it hosts throughout the year, including the arts fest. For individuals to hold an event on their own, without being sponsored by a larger, established organization, the cost of insurance would be prohibitive.

Publicity and other challenges

The Proctor Arts Fest organizers promote their event through a website and various news outlets. Advertising in the local newspaper reaches a wide audience for a relatively small investment, and they have relationships with high speed internet and phone service providers, one of whom created a 30-second video to promote the festival.

Kester said, “We have been linking ourselves with various communications groups, and then we try to get anything we can to all the radio and TV stations, all the news outlets. But that could be strengthened.” Publicity is one more aspect that requires a great deal of time and effort, one more reason an event like this requires teamwork.

“Don’t try to do it yourself,” Frederick said. “Get a good committee.” She also offered a warning about how much time this project can take away from personal life and business life as well, especially for those who run small businesses by themselves. Frederick and her husband own the Chalet Bowl bowling alley. She has seen committee members spend so much time on the festival that their businesses suffered. The time adds up. “I started to keep track last fall,” Frederick said, “and I quit trying to. It was like 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there, 2 hours here….”

Is it worth the effort?

Even the casual observer can see how much money flows into the Proctor District on Arts Fest weekend. But that’s only one part of a much larger picture. Kester and Frederick look at the overall effect on the character and quality of their community. Proctor might just be a neighborhood in a city, but it is more like a small town in its own right. Like the good citizens they are, these two individuals feel invested it its welfare, a feeling that motivates them to carry on.

In addition to building a sense of community, it’s a matter of smart economics. “Areas like ours have to stay vital,” Kester said. “Otherwise, they significantly deteriorate.” This has happened in other parts of the city, and Kester believes that once it does, it’s extremely difficult to bring those areas back to economic health. “So the Proctor District Association and the events that the association puts together are good economics. They keep us noticed and keep drawing people to us. It keeps the name of the Proctor District out there so that people see it and they have some good feeling about it.”

Kester pointed out that, in this modern age, it’s difficult for communities to maintain a sense of coalition, especially since American society has become so segmented and individualized. The local farmers market serves this goal well, but the arts fest is a major event that draws people together. However, that happens only because individuals like Kester and Frederick make it happen.

“If you put it together, then people will come,” Kester said. “But it’s going to be a core of people that bear the burden of it. You have to have a sense of vision and a profound sense of commitment to do this, because it’s going to draw energy from you. It’s not necessarily going to be significantly appreciated. That has to be in your own mind. You have to understand why you are doing it.”

Sometimes the things that keep them going have nothing to do with economics or even community building. Sometimes it’s just the small but memorable moments, like the year during which that first weekend in August—statistically the driest time of the year—ended up being wet.

“Three years ago, we had a very rainy day,” Frederick recalled. “But it was a warm summer rain. And it was just crazy watching the families in their rain coats and rubber boots. They were still out there shopping. They were still out there dancing in the streets to the music. It’s just fun watching the people come out.”

 

  All photo credits to: the Proctor Arts Fest

 

 

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