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The equity issues looming over Moogfest and the Art of Cool

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).

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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.”

 

Comments

Jeff Bakalchuck

@Rick No two projects or events are ever exactly the same, so it's never the proverbial apples to apples comparison.

However, only a blind person couldn't notice that there is a huge racial disparity in Durham when it comes to events. The racial make-up Juneteenth attendees isn't anything like the racial make-up of the festival for the Eno crowd.

I really think you'd be hard-pressed to make a case that the homeless people being sheltered at the Durham Rescue Mission benefit from Moogfest or AOC.

Big Homie

I just want to comment on the "old people" claim with regard to AOC. Apparently, Paolo hasn't seen the actual lineup for this year's festival. Five of the artists featured in this year's lineup are featured on Kendrick Lamar's Grammy-winning album "To Pimp a Butterfly" and at least two of the other performers (Anderson Paak and the Internet) are hardly creating "old people music." The bottom line is Durham already has a phenomenal festival (that's only a few years old) that has attracted droves of out-of-towners as well as locals to come out and celebrate the city for AOC weekend. All of a sudden, a bigger, older festival comes to town and the city rolls out the green carpet of cash... And we wonder why small businesses get shut out of the market when Walmart comes to town... I dig the "home-grown-ness" of AOC. Let Durham do Durham...

Marc Lee

And in the midst of this battle, what is happening with the funding for two other African American music festivals, The Bull Durham Blues Festival and Bimbe, and how does that compare to what is happening with the Eno Festival on a local level......All three of these are also institutions of great importance to our cultural landscape........Also isn't it about time that we have a collective front and someone that can allocate money and support for all of these festivals as well as other new ones that also need support...I just recently learned of the Brickside festival at Durham and of course there is the fairly new Caribbean festival in downtown Durham......I believe that was the recommendation of a consultant who came here recently........

Leon Grodski Barrera

There is no doubt that for a plethora of reasons The Art of Cool festival not only has worked relentlessly from the ground up to add a considerable contribution to our city. Cicely and Al and all the folks involved are working harder than any of us know and creating so much home grown added value to our city. The city comes alive in the most beautiful way during the festival. They deserve every possible support. I don't think it is one or the other, but The Art of Cool should be at the top of the list for city support and with the highest possible amount.

Give these folks a dime in the short term and the city will get back a dollar.

Khalid Hawthorne

I agree completely Leon!

"The Art of Cool should be at the top of the list for city support and with the highest possible amount.

Give these folks a dime in the short term and the city will get back a dollar."

Paolo Shirazi

So, unsurprisingly, and as I predicted earlier in these comments (to predictable derision), Moogfest gets written up again with major stories in the national press - New York Times, The Atlantic, and Pitchfork, to name a few - and the Art of the Uncool get no significant coverage from a national publication. Why am I the only person writing in these comments that sees the obvious? That the money should go to a festival that matters (and one that will help put Durham on the map culturally), and not one that doesn't?

The answer is obvious. Moogfest isn't (yet) part of the local "progressive" food chain, and it doesn't have an overwhelming connection to the most sainted and protected group in that chain (i.e., the local African-American community) - a community that seems to be playing little more than a marginal role in the downtown renaissance (a fact that makes most of the white people in Durham's political ecosystem pretty damn uncomfortable). Never underestimate the distorting power of white guilt - on display in this comments section.

root

I like the idea of press coverage as the arbiter of value, can I join?

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