Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Nurturing an Indigenous Festival Ecosystem

Spurred by a headline in the local newspaper, I had a flashback to Paul Jeffrey and the former World Jazz Festival here when a new indigenous jazz festival launched in Durham, North Carolina last weekend.

It was one of more than a dozen indigenous but nationally-acclaimed annual festivals including several smaller jazz festivals I found waiting for me when I was invited here 25 years ago to to foster the community’s marketing organization.

Then City manager Orville Powell and the late Jack Bond, who was the Durham County manager at the time, asked us to incorporate a far more in depth and comprehensive community-wide calendar into our work, something still far too rare among other destination marketing organizations.

It made sense to expand our inventory to include not only visitor-ready events including annual festivals, but to each and every event in the community.

This way organizers would be fully aware when selecting dates to avoid any that would compete for audience, but more significantly avoid competing for sponsors, volunteers and even hotels rooms.

There were already a couple of thousand Durham events back then.  Today there are about 5,000 events each year but the ecosystem in which festivals and events thrive is extremely fragile.

It is reliant not only on respect by other organizers and the supply and demand for sponsors and volunteers but for sustainable capacity.  By that I mean that the core organization, group or cluster of individuals upon whose energy and passion indigenous festivals grow and thrive.

It is not an area of a community’s sense of place that can survive churn.

Pile on too many and the capacity to create and sustain indigenous events—only ones that make a community distinctive—and a community can go generic or from “somewhere” to “anywhere” in a hurry.

This new jazz festival was quick to reach out and incorporate several others that have been in existence in Durham, most fostered by jazz instructors and study areas at Duke and North Carolina Central universities here.

The former Durham World Jazz festival created and produced by Professor Jeffrey from the early 1980s until he retired many years later was also a multi-day, multi-venue festival.  It drew participant jazz performers from around the world.

When consultants created a master plan for Durham’s downtown, without checking the inventory of events held downtown or elsewhere, they included an off the shelf recommendation for more events.  Unfortunately, this may have undermined some existing events.

I recall many years ago when one of our strategic partners asked me if we would support the City spending $200,000+ to import a jazz festival from another city.  “No,” I said, because to his surprise we already had two or more indigenous jazz festivals that could use that underwriting.

The idea of an import was quickly extinguished and traditional supply-driven economic developers very wisely consulted with those of us on the demand-side of economic development for an understanding of the organic way sense of place evolves.

In many communities, supply-siders seem so numbed by the concept of churn created by commercial developers that they end up destroying sense of place which sadly once gone cannot be restored or reinvented.

Sense of place is organic.

Adaptive reuse of historic buildings are no guarantee of sense of place if they are populated with formula restaurants, formula retail and formula festivals and events.

Things such as indigenous festivals and indigenous restaurants and truly locally-owned, independent businesses are the crucial software that prevents historic preservation from becoming just another Disneyland, a simulation of sense of place.

To her credit, the organizer of the new Durham jazz festival that occurred a few days ago, reached out and incorporated others that had been struggling, bringing much needed oxygen and a dose of crowdfunding to a cast of corporate sponsors for underwriting.

Festivals can age out when the people with the original energy move on or because they need to be retooled or because of some temporary dislocation beyond their control. Volunteers can burn out too.

Two here that have seemed to struggle in recent years to find their original vibrancy and chemistry are Centerfest and the Bull Durham Blues Festival.  Neither is due to lack of trying or community enthusiasm.

More likely is that a delicate and fragile festival ecosystem had been disturbed making it difficult to find the original magic.  Money is often not the answer if internal capacity, vision or passion has been compromised somehow.

Watching a video at Durham’s Annual Tribute Luncheon which was tucked between our Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and the new jazz festival, I was struck by the audience’s reaction to images of Centerfest and the Bull Durham Blues Festival in their heyday.

Reminded of how vibrant they once were, the audience probably recalled the role these two festivals and many others played in downtown’s resurgence.

Some communities may need more festivals.  However, fortunate for Durham, our festival ecosystem is entrepreneurial and self-perpetuating and needs no “big game hunting.”

Instead, its health needs to be nurtured and given capacity.

When festivals inevitably begin to age out and lose steam, equally indigenous replacements need to be nurtured just as Dr. Cisely Mitchell, a trained bio-statistician and her partner trumpeter Albert Strong did with the Art of Cool Fest.

She also not only created an indigenous festival but gave exposure to scores of local performers as well as name acts, established as well as up and coming, something also at the heart of the Durham Blues Festival in its heyday.

Community sense of place is never about “big game hunting” for culture. It is always about careful gardening.

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