As the free festival Artsplosure turns 35, organizers look to keep it vital in a crowded city | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Raleigh festival has evolved from reminding people there’s a downtown to battling for attention in a crowded scene

As the free festival Artsplosure turns 35, organizers look to keep it vital in a crowded city 

Last year, The BoDeans headlined one night of Artsplosure, the veteran Raleigh arts festival that's now trying to fit into a busy downtown.

Photo by Brian Magee/Courtesy of Artsplosure

Last year, The BoDeans headlined one night of Artsplosure, the veteran Raleigh arts festival that's now trying to fit into a busy downtown.

When Michael Lowder became the executive director of Artsplosure, the Raleigh arts-and-music festival, in 1997, he didn't know he'd become the event's de facto downtown navigator, too.

"When I first started, it was like a no man's land," Lowder remembers of Raleigh's city center. That was before Fayetteville Street was open to traffic, before The Raleigh Times was more than an erstwhile city newspaper.

"The phone call that we got the most," Lowder says, "was a version of 'Where is downtown Raleigh?'"

Terri Dollar joined Artsplosure a year later, and the programming director remembers the emergence of a different question: "'Is it safe to come down there at night?' We don't get that at all anymore."

Indeed, the challenges that Artsplosure—both the nonprofit organization and its namesake spring event, which turns 35 this weekend—face have changed drastically during the last four decades. Artsplosure began as a recruitment tool for downtown Raleigh, a way to coax families into a part of the city that they rarely visited.

"When the fledgling City of Raleigh Arts Commission first conceived of an arts festival, one of our goals was to attract people to come downtown, eventually," remembers Ardath Weaver, one of the planners for the first Artsplosure in 1980. "We wanted exposure for the wealth of arts in Raleigh, setting the stage for people to be drawn to more downtown venues. We needed to demonstrate that downtown could be family-friendly and that people really could find a place to park."

Parking might still be an issue, but after more than a decade of rapid expansion and rebuilding downtown, new restaurants and bars, weeklong conventions and festivals, farmers markets and retail upstarts continue to bring new residents and visitors into the city center. Artsplosure now faces a new challenge: How do you remain visible and vital in the increasingly crowded market you helped build?

Indeed, Lowder and Dollar now struggle with the consequences of an increased demand for downtown living. This year, for instance, Artsplosure's organizers integrated the ongoing construction of the 23-story SkyHouse apartment building, which sits diagonal to the festival's Moore Square epicenter, into the festival itself. N.C. State painter Adaria Coulter will cover the safety fence around the property with a mural. The developers even helped fund the mural's commission.

The acoustic portion of this year's music programming will move inside to the nearby Longview Center; due to recent municipal tree protection efforts, the festival couldn't again build multiple stages within Moore Square. And when Lowder and Dollar return to work on Monday morning, they'll begin planning how to overhaul the festival's footprint entirely in the future, as the Raleigh City Council approved a fundraising process for a long-debated reboot of Moore Square last week.

"We've been pretty good about adapting to change," says Dollar, "and letting the funk of what's going on in the city, which is our landscape, just be part of the festival."

But the physical landscape isn't the only change Artsplosure must adjust for as it climbs into middle age. It's also working to avoid a mid-life crisis by distinguishing itself from a new abundance of downtown events, including many with bigger budgets that aren't nearly as dependent upon public funds.

Artsplosure isn't the oasis in the downtown desert it might've once seemed. Within a few weeks of the free festival, the city center will have hosted a LGBT celebration, a beer festival, a food truck rodeo, several road races and a free concert at Red Hat Amphitheater. And that's only a sample taken from a few streets, not accounting for the surrounding blocks of Glenwood South or the new North Hills amphitheater.

Compared to other new downtown festivals, Artsplosure's overall budget represents but a fraction of their spending capabilities. During each of the last three years, Artsplosure has spent between $135,000 and $185,000 to produce the two-day event. That's a quarter of what Hopscotch paid for last year's festival. And this year, Artsplosure budgeted $84,000 for all of its talents—musicians such as Tift Merritt and Alejandro Escovedo, a massive caterpillar created by Paperhand Puppet Intervention and a street-theater spectacle. The talent for last fall's two-day IBMA fan festival, meanwhile, cost a quarter-million dollars.

Attempting to compete with those deeper pockets means that Dollar has to both bargain shop and take risks on relative unknowns. Instead of booking headlining acts a year from the date of their performance, which would entail a higher price tag, she waits to see who will be in the area and saves money by sharing expenses. That means, however, that the bands are booked late, delaying talent announcements and hindering some promotion.

But Dollar's found that some area music fans trust her discernment. "I didn't realize this until last year, but there is a sizable audience that comes not even knowing who we're presenting," she says.

Though Artsplosure's maintained a reputation for booking strong jazz and blues artists, from Pinetop Perkins to Spyro Gyra, they've expanded their approach to include younger acts like Toubab Krewe and Lake Street Dive. "Because of our audience, we've taken risks that I don't know we would have taken that many years ago," Dollar says. During the Grammy ceremony in 2011, her phone kept lighting up after Esperanza Spalding, who performed at Artsplosure as a relative unknown in 2007, won Best New Artist. Dollar had simply seen Spalding play bass and sing on YouTube; she bet on her and won.

Growing with the city hasn't been without its pains: In 2008, Artsplosure attempted to expand its offerings with a three-day event called Art on the Edge, with performances by locals like Birds of Avalon as well as Australian sway pole troupe Strange Fruit. It was a prototype, Lowder says, for the kind of programming they'd like to bring to Raleigh but that's usually seen in much bigger markets. They brought in a giant luminarium, which cost $33,600 and had never been in a market as small as Raleigh. Even though they charged admission, they still lost money on the gamble.

"It was too soon for Raleigh," he remembers. "Knowing that the audience would not be as robust as for something like Artsplosure, it's hard to make it work financially."

But if they're going to stay relevant in a city that no longer needs to lure people downtown for the first time, such risks are important. "There's the challenge of standing out from the fray so that people know and recognize the distinctive difference in what we do," Dollar says.

Helping to build such competition downtown was, in part, the goal of Artsplosure all along. That mission, at least, has been accomplished

"I came to this point a long time ago: it's not a zero-sum game. We were sort of a trailblazer. There used to be nothing here," says Lowder. "The more quality events there are, the more it helps us because more people are comfortable with coming downtown."


Art to hear

In case Saturday's TIFT MERRITT set and Sunday's ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO finale, both in Moore Square, don't tip you off, Artsplosure takes a tangential road to the heart of Americana for its 35th anniversary. The strange thing is, though, the organizers often headed north, even into Canada, to fill that bill: Saturday's music begins with the Canuck RYAN LEBLANC, a polyrhythmic, finger-tapping guitarist in the tradition of Leo Kottke. He shares a nationality with KIM WEMPE, an audacious singer who, like Bonnie Raitt, often baits her roaring blues core with affable pop hooks. One of the surprises of the weekend, though, might be MARIA IN THE SHOWER, a four-piece whose wide-eyed take on folk suggests that they're Vancouver's version of Bombadil. Merritt will close Saturday night just as the sun sets. Louisiana blues dude JONATHON BOOGIE LONG and pristine-toned electric guitarist JOHNNY A. fill out slots on Saturday afternoon.

Before the fest heads back north for humdrum Prince Edward Island singer-songwriter TIM CHAISSON, emergent Raleigh four-piece HAZELWOOD will ease the audience into Sunday at the plaintive intersection of adult-contemporary pop and alt-country. Minneapolis singer CHASTITY BROWN is the day's point of real intrigue: With a loamy voice and lucid lyrics, Brown suggests a collaboration between Van Morrison and Roberta Flack, backed by a crack team of young musicians steeped in both the blues and hip-hop. New York's THE LONDON SOULS provide the rock lift in advance of ESCOVEDO, one of alt-country's greatest dignitaries and, by extension, a Raleigh icon of sorts who has never actually lived here. —Grayson Haver Currin

This article appeared in print with the headline "Optimum exposure."

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