Starting Your Own Festival

By Edna Landau

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

This week’s question comes from a young violinist at Juilliard whom I had the pleasure of meeting when I was a guest in Bärli Nugent’s class a few weeks ago. I am grateful to Edward Klorman, a founder and co-Artistic Director of the Canandaigua LakeMusic Festival and Director of Manhattan School of Music’s Center for Music Entrepreneurship for sharing his personal experience with me as I prepared the answer below.

Dear Edna: 

I’m a violinist having spent most of my life performing and collaborating, but I’ve hardly done any organizing of my own projects. After working with many different kinds of musicians, dancers, actors and other art-related people throughout the years, I’m beginning to really want to organize my own festival combining them all. I feel that some pretty amazing projects could be created out of their collaborations, and it would be fascinating to experience the way in which all forms of the arts complement one another. I have no clue as to how to start such an epic project – what would be the best way to do so?  —Laura Lutzke 

Dear Laura: 

It is exciting for me every time a young person shows the initiative and desire to launch a new project based on their own artistic experience and observations. I am sure you are right that the festival you envision could be “pretty amazing” and I hope you will not let anything get in the way of your zeal to follow through on it. You seem perfectly positioned to bring to fruition such a multi-genre celebration of the arts. 

I think the most essential thing, when undertaking a substantial new project, is to start with what and who you know. If you plan your new endeavor in a community where you are known, people will be motivated to help you right from the start. Edward Klorman hails from Rochester, New York and his family has spent summers at Canandaigua Lake for many years. That area was therefore a natural location for him to start a festival. His mother, Rhonda Jones, was actually the founding executive director of the festival. He knew his potential audience well and attempted to figure out from the start how he could collaborate with them, drawing on their established interests but also potentially introducing them to new things. It will prove advantageous to you if the area you are identifying seems “hungry” for the type of cultural events you are anticipating and if there are established organizations that are already involved in the genres of performance you hope to promote. Also, be sure to identify a time when you are likely to draw the largest audience. 

Once you have identified your ideal location, be prepared to do a tremendous amount of networking and legwork. One of your first goals will be finding a suitable performance venue that might make space available for free or at low cost. Churches are often good starting points but you also shouldn’t be afraid to think creatively. Edward Klorman and his co-Artistic Director, Amy Barston, launched their very successful Classical Blue Jeans series in a barn. Other festivals have worked collaboratively with vineyards, who have been delighted to have a new cultured audience to introduce to their fine wines. 

At every step along the way, you should never hesitate to ask people for help and advice. People with resources and expertise love the idea of giving something back to a good cause. When Ed Klorman started on his journey, he asked a local piano dealer who they knew that had a piano in their home. He then organized a house concert to float the idea of a festival and to get people excited about it. An enthusiastic audience of about 50 attended. He asked them to leave their contact information and to be sure to tell their friends about plans for a festival ten months later. Within a few months, small gifts totaling close to $15,000 came in. The festival operated at first under the fiscal sponsorship of a local arts council, enabling them to receive contributions. They subsequently decided to apply for non-profit status through a lawyer who volunteered their services. 

Once you have settled on the what, where and when of your festival, you want to call on as many people as possible to get on board. Check out housing options and see if some hotel or bed and breakfast proprietors might be willing to offer some complimentary rooms to festival participants. Perhaps local residents might want to offer private housing. That is a great way for them to feel involved in your venture without having to necessarily spend any money. Visit local vendors to see whether they might offer in-kind sponsorships; for example, free printing of your programs and/or brochure in exchange for acknowledgment in all of your festival promotion. (You might want to throw in some free tickets as an inducement.) You should approach various arts and civic organizations to see if they might send an announcement of your festival to their mailing lists. Be sure to cover all of the genres represented in your programming. Also take the time to visit the local Chamber of Commerce, Tourist Bureau, newspapers and other town publications to get their advance support of your new venture. 

When it is time to settle on artists for the festival, think about a core group that shares your vision and that might potentially want to be involved for the long haul. They don’t need to be world-famous but they should share your excitement over this new project and be very adept at communicating it to your audience. Hopefully, they will be satisfied with low fees at the start, as long as their expenses are covered. 

It goes without saying that the success of any new venture can be largely dependent on public relations. Seek as much help as you can in this area. Make sure that all of your materials are attractive and inviting, with great photos, and that your press releases convey the careful thought that went into your programming and the uniqueness of what you will be offering. While a clever name for your festival is not essential, it might be a small plus in your public relations efforts.

There is so much more to say on this topic but space precludes addressing matters such as programming and fundraising in greater detail. I hope the above paragraphs will give you a basic idea of how to get started. As you move forward, you should seek out people who have started their own festivals and they will all have useful information to offer you. And please remember to put me on your mailing list as soon as you have one! 

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

© Edna Landau 2011

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