Over the past 60 years, as high-speed interstates have been built parallel to the smaller highways — I-85 and U.S. 70, for example — the towns along the two-laners have withered. Yes, we want to drive faster, with six lanes of open road spread before us. We want to fill our tanks at a mega-Sheetz and grab a latte at Starbucks and a burger at McDonald’s. But in opting for six lanes instead of two, our wallets bypass the small filling stations, the downtown coffee shops and diners. The little guys lose.
This is the comparison I thought of at last week’s City Council work session when organizers for two festivals, Moogfest (Interstate) and the Art of Cool (Highway), asked the city for money to help them offset costs of producing their respective events at several venues all over town.
Moogfest organizers asked the city and the county for a total of $135,000 — $62,500 from each — to cover half of the cost of free community programs. (The amount covers none of the ticketed events.) The balance of the $276,000 for this purpose would be covered by private sponsors.
Meanwhile, AOC, after being rejecting by the county for a $5,000 ask, approached the city for $20,000 to offset the costs of renting lights, sound and a stage for a large show at the Durham Armory.
On Monday, Moogfest got its $62,500; AOC is expected to receive some funding, but the amount won’t be voted on for two weeks — shortly before the festival begins.
This is not a question of whether a city should invest in the arts; both festivals will enliven Durham’s culture. It is an issue, though, of equity. And, as City Councilwoman Cora Cole-McFadden noted at Monday night’s regular council meeting, a “racial” one.
From a social capital perspective, Moogfest is powered by the substantial muscle of the city’s startup and tech culture, with the full promotional backing of the chamber, the convention and visitors bureau, and the American Tobacco Campus.
AOC is at a financial disadvantage — at least in terms of economic impact, which unfortunately is the main metric of success — precisely because it’s young and homegrown. If you live in Durham and attend AOC, it’s unlikely that you’re staying in a hotel, taking Uber or a cab to the airport, or dining out for every meal.
And frankly, AOC, while its offices are in the American Underground, still hasn’t been fully embraced by, well, I’ll say it, white culture.
In its third year, AOC, is a homegrown, fledgling jazz festival, scheduled for May 6-8. By festival standards, AOC has a small budget — $342,000 — and, typical for nascent events, has yet to turn a profit. (By comparison, Hopscotch in Raleigh didn't earn a profit in 2011 and 2012, when the INDY owned it. I’ve not been privy to revenue numbers since the paper and the festival were sold.)
More than two-thirds of AOC’s audience is black, according to 2015 festival figures, and the event is known for showcasing high-profile and up-and-coming African-American artists. It includes free community programs, as well.
“We are very grassroots,” AOC President Cicely Mitchell told City Council.
Two-thirds of AOC’s budget comes from ticket sales. Prices are modest, with student and senior passes running $25, and nightly club passes costing $50. The all-access VIP package is $285. Last weekend, AOC offered discount on ticket prices, which indicates sales could be slower than anticipated.
Two weeks later, enter Moogfest, which started as an electronic music extravaganza in 2004 in New York, then moved to Asheville for a decade, and is marking its first year in Durham, May 19–22. (The festival is always held as close as possible to Robert Moog’s birthday, May 23.)
In 2014, its budget totaled $2.7 million, but the festival lost $1.5 million. Buncombe County rejected the festival’s request for $250,000.
This year, Moogfest’s theme is Afro-Futurism, which combines elements of black culture, jazz and science fiction. While that presents some issues with audience overlap, that’s not a guarantee of black audiences. Several years ago, the Durham Arts Council mounted a Sun Ra exhibition, and a performance by local musicians and a parade. The crowd was largely white.
Like AOC, Moogfest will include free community programs. A festival pass is $249, and the VIP version runs $400. Single-day tickets range from $49–$89. [In 2014, that was the price of single-day tickets; as a commenter noted below, there are no single-day tickets this year. Thus you're in for 249 clams or you're not going.]
The ticket prices reflect the income of the festival’s audience. Emmy Parker, creative director for Moogfest, emphasized the wealth of its audience, which, she said, is “very educated and mature, with 60 percent of festival goers earning household incomes of more than $100,000 a year.”
Unfortunately, a festival’s worth, at least in terms of public funding, has been distilled into the hocus-pocus financial modeling that determines its economic impact. And part of that equation is whether a festival draws out-of-town guests who book hotel rooms (Moogfest audience) or attracts a largely local or regional audience that doesn’t (AOC).
According to 2016 projections by the DCVB, 4,350 people will attend AOC this year, compared to 10,250 for Moogfest. But the primary financial difference is the overnight spending: $932,846 for AOC, and $3.7 million for Moogfest. When all of the visitor spending is accounted for (food, transportation, etc.), Moogfest’s value added to the Durham economy is $4.9 million, compared to AOC’s, which is $1.1 million.
At last week’s Council work session, Shelly Green of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau, (perhaps sensing the tension in the room over the equity between the two festivals) noted that Art of Cool’s economic impact “has grown exponentially from $500,000 to $1.6 million. It has a smaller budget. It’s new festival. Moog been around long time. It’s hard to compare,” she said.
Yet that's exactly what the city is doing in its funding decisions — decisions that don't account for what Councilman Steve Schewel, a former owner of Hopscotch, called “the subjective elements.”
Lost in the talk of dollars and cents, hotel beds and taxes generated, is that AOC started in Durham and, even if it's smaller than Moogfest, is nonetheless part of the city's cultural fabric. It would be a shame to see AOC fail because the chamber and DCVB — and the public — don't value it. Yes, technoshamanism — using technology to inspire a spiritual experience — sounds sexy. But I would argue that a Terence Blanchard performance can elicit an equally transcendental state of mind.
“This is our homegrown festival,” Schewel said of AOC. “It’s diverse and financially accessible. Those are important virtues.”