Editor’s Note: This is the first preview article of the Selective Echo’s comprehensive coverage of the 37th annual Utah Arts Festival, which runs June 20-23. Previews will continue periodically until June 13. Daily coverage begins June 14 and continues through the end of the festival. Photos featured here are used courtesy of the Utah Arts Festival by photographers David Newkirk and Nicole Morgenthau.
The words “outreach,” and “engagement” when juxtaposed with “audience” and “community” have become so pervasive in the world of the arts that they risk losing their genuine value and impact. Doug Borwick, a long-time arts administrator who curates the Arts Journal blog Engaging Matters, recently wrote, ‘Think how it would feel if you were invited to and participated in a major party by a new friend and that new friend then went on to hold many more parties and never talked to you again. That’s the experience of some communities who have been exposed to “hit and run” relationships with arts organizations.’
For the staff, board, venue coordinators, volunteers, sponsors, and even participating performers and artists of the 37th annual Utah Arts Festival (UAF), community engagement truly means building and maintaining a relationship where the arts and the community are, as Borwick describes, equal partners.
No doubt, the four-day festival, which opens June 20 and will likely bring in approximately 65 percent of the revenue the organization needs for its annual budget of roughly $2 million, is the organization’s most prominent yearly milestone. However, as Lisa Sewell, UAF’s executive director, explains, the identity of this year’s festival – Art Fan – also underscores a vision that is as evident in the behind-the-scenes work of August, November, and February as it is when nearly 100,000 people convene on four sunny, hot days in late June on the Library Square in downtown Salt Lake City.
Indeed, the faces of true arts fans – Chow Truck owner SuAn Chow, Mormon Tabernacle Choir organist Richard Elliott, radio host and media personality Doug Fabrizio, Real Salt Lake soccer player Nick Rimando, retired firefighter Clara Borrero, and many others – echo the belief that everyone in the community matters. And, in cultivating that all-inclusive sense of ownership for the festival, Sewell, who is working in her 18th festival and seventh as director, welcomes every opportunity for the unexpected connections forged by even the most unlikely of partners, whether it’s in planning a venue, offering a hands-on artistic collaboration, or customizing a corporate sponsorship.
Sewell and the staff recently invited Eric Mitchell of the locally based Fifth Ocean consulting firm to study how the organization could improve its capacity to be flexible and agile responding to a community where the business-as-usual approach for nonprofit arts organizations is unwise and ineffective. The Utah Arts Festival already has been around longer than many other similar outdoor gatherings. For example, slightly more than one-half of the 1,400 festivals that the National Endowment for the Arts recently surveyed have been around for more than 10 years.
‘We have undergone a huge shift,’ Sewell explains. The previous governing structure – with 24 members each on a fiduciary and an advisory board – had become extremely cumbersome as a platform to experiment with ideas for bringing the community closer and closer to the arts scene. ‘The most encouraging thing we’ve learned from Eric’s work is everybody is on the same page,’ Sewell says, ‘and we all share the bigger vision. The problem is that the boards haf become too large for what all of us want to do.’
The UAF’s governing structure changed earlier this year with a main board (now much smaller) and three small boards, ranging in membership from eight to ten each. Sewell believes the change will fortify the cohesive structure for expanding and extending community engagement. The main governing board, with nine to 12 members, will handle the formal fiduciary responsibilities normally expected of trustees. An emeritus board will include individuals who have served the UAF for many years in various capacities and are essential to sustaining the organization’s historical memory.
For the younger generations, the cultivation board will provide strategic guidance on broadening and diversifying the organization’s membership base and sponsorship opportunities, as it works with Aimee Dunsmore, UAF’s development director. The community board will provide guidance to Sewell and Patrick Burns, UAF’s assistant director, on ideas for developing and adapting festival programming to reflect the community’s changing demographics.
Worth noting, for example, is the organization’s emphasis on broadening its membership and diversifying it programming base to reflect younger generations who hold the keys to sustaining the festival’s legacy. The Friends With Benefits program, now in its third year, has helped to expand a support base spanning across many of the changing demographics in the community population, With multiple contribution levels, ranging from $50 annually to $1,000 or more, a steadily increasing number of individual donors are taking advantage of various amenities and privileges that extend to other activities and events the UAF sponsors year-round.
One of the perks includes the festival’s Friends patio, which becomes an informal family-style gathering and makes it easy to engage members in seeking their thoughts and input about the festival, according to Aimee Dunsmore, UAF’s development director. ‘The interaction is genuine, energetic, and locally focused,’ she adds. ‘It’s like having an informal focus group in a perfectly natural setting.’ Each evening at the festival, the patio event will highlight food and hospitality provided by locally owned enterprises including Uinta Brewing, Pig and a Jelly Jar, Bourbon House, The Tin Angel Café, Taqueria 27, and The Chocolate Conspiracy.
Dunsmore says the input is influencing the organization’s marketing emphasis that ties in art more directly to the overall mission of engagement. A gallery exhibit based on masks and their representation in art and sculpture proved to be an effective way to promote the UAF’s annual Mardi Gras themed masquerade party. ‘We’re also finding new points for programming,’ she explains, adding interest has been expressed for events focusing on dance, theater, film, and children’s programs.
The emphasis on proper, meaningful engagement also extends deeply into UAF’s philosophy about corporate sponsorship, which contributes significantly to the festival’s viability. However, it also must be balanced sensitively with the concerns of visitors and art patrons who do not want to see corporate marketing on festival grounds directly interfering with the social and cultural experiences of the events. ‘Our patrons do not respond well – and some may even become hostile – to sponsors with vendor booths that do not somehow integrate with a festival activity or event,’ Dunsmore explains. ‘We always work individually with our corporate sponsors to ensure their involvement is mutually rewarding for them as well as our festival visitors.’
The practice dates to the 1990s, as Sewell recalls, when the UAF suggested an ideal festival presence for a telecommunications sponsor would be setting up a phone center for patrons to make free calls. Last year, Verizon Wireless’ booth was the voting location for patrons to cast a ballot for the ‘People’s Choice Award,’ in the Artist Marketplace, which proved popular. While the idea worked well, Dunsmore also said many patrons who came to the festival on Sunday (the final day) were disappointed the voting ended a day early. For them, Verizon’s booth now was like any other commercial vendor booth at other events. It was a worthy lesson for both Dunsmore and Verizon Wireless, who have ensured that this year’s festival patrons will be able to cast their ballots for their favorite artists on all four days of the event.
Chobani Yogurt, a company that has grown exponentially in impressive degrees since its 2005 founding and now leads the national yogurt market, has matched its strong media presence with its enthusiastic support for the arts, now in its fourth year of supporting the UAF. Chobani operates the Shepherd’s Gift Foundation, which supports many nonprofits including the NYC-based Sing for Hope organization which provides public piano installations throughout the city.
Dunsmore clearly enjoys the creative challenge of designing the best festival fit for a corporate sponsor. Rocky Mountain Power’s Blue Sky program is making it possible for the UAF to avoid nearly 90,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions by implementing a renewable energy program. Fe Rettazzini, a student at Stevens-Henager College, won the school’s competition for the festival’s winning art mark design. And, two days after the festival ends, the Whole Foods store at Trolley Square will donate five percent of its net sales to support the festival.
The festival also offers two new community development events this year. On June 22, UAF becomes a new venue for the national Color Me Rad 5-K program, which is being held in more than 90 cities in the U.S. and Canada this year. Each charity or nonprofit partner typically receives between $15,000 and $30,000 from the event, based on the number of participants.
The second fundraising event is a clever twist on a conventional standard for nonprofits and arts organizations – the preview event, typically called a ‘big deal,’ as Sewell explains. Instead of doing a formal preview before the festival opens, UAF staff decided a Sunday breakfast event – The Big Deal Brunch – before the gates open for the final day might work better. ‘A preview event can be especially hectic,’ Sewell explains. ‘Normally, everyone is overwhelmed with last-minute preparations but, by Sunday, everybody has found a comfortable groove and is ready to relax a bit.’
Dunsmore adds the brunch will give patrons a close look at festival setups along with a private sale at many artist booths. In fact, nearly 70 of the 162 artists are expected to participate in the event, which will include entertainment by the Red Rock Hot Club gypsy jazz band. Tickets for the event can be purchased here. The event brings three additional corporate sponsors to the table, including Blue Star Juice Bar and Coffee Café, Pinnacle Vodka, and TNT Auction.
The multifaceted Art Fan themed strategy has helped the Utah Arts Festival remain fiscally viable during a turbulent period beginning with a deep recession, followed by a doggedly slow recovery and, more recently, by the still uncertain impact of federal budgetary sequestration. Based on an operating budget of more than $1.9 million, the per-capita cost for producing the festival has risen in recent years from $16 to $21. In 1977, at the first festival, which featured 55 artists and 43 performers, the budget was $38,000. Sewell notes the festival today, which has more than tripled in terms of artists and performers since the first year, does not take commission on visual artists’ sales and every single performer is paid. A seventh performing stage has been added this year, adjacent to the café on The Leonardo plaza.
And, the UAF is easing into a modest increase in admission after several years of maintaining a stable ticket price. Adult tickets for the first day (Thursday) are $10, which has the been price previously, and $12 for the remaining days of the festival. Lunchtime admission on Thursday and Friday is $6 and tickets are $6 for seniors 65 and older. A four-day pass is just $35 and the UAF is keeping its 2-for-1 ‘y’all come back’ pass for a discount on a return visit.
One policy remains rock solid and that is no admission charge for children 12 and younger. ‘All of us believe strongly in making the festival as accessible to families as possible,’ Sewell adds. As for keeping Thursday admission prices stable, the UAF believes it also is a good incentive for the community to take advantage of the city’s first major outdoor summer event of the season to be held on a weekday.
While the UAF relies on a year-round staff of five, 45 seasonal program coordinators, and a technical staff of 30, to coordinate the event, Sewell says an experienced corps of more than 1,200 volunteers, some of whom have served easily more than 15 years, have brought talents and skills of significant value that are essentially in-kind contributions going well beyond what would be available given actual budgetary resources. Sewell explains many grant applications require information about volunteer services involved in the organization, reported not just in numbers and hours but also in terms of a hypothetical hourly wage. For UAF, the average hourly rate is $22, and it can vary widely across the distribution, depending upon the complexities or skills involved with a particular volunteer role. American Express also has played a prominent role in the festival’s volunteer program.
There are many ways to measure an organization’s effectiveness. In fact, one of the key strengths has been the UAF’s ability to be a third-party source of matching sponsors in the community to one another as part of building yet further value into the benefits of truly mutual engagement and philanthropy. The fruits of nurturing relationships provide a healthy return on investment. Just within the past year, the value of contributed income has risen by 28 percent to $900,000, which goes a long way toward ensuring the festival’s capacity for continuous improvement in all of its program offerings, Dunsmore adds.
Lively, energetic and even vigorous interaction is essential to the UAF’s effectiveness in tapping into every imaginable community root. As Borwick explains, ‘the focus of community engagement is on the relationship; the art grows out of or is a response to the relationship. The desired end results are deepened relationships and expanded reach for the arts organization and healthier, more vibrant communities.’
For more information about this year’s festival, see here.
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