Kentuck Festival of the Arts drew record crowds, organizers say

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In the category of good problems to suffer, the staff at Kentuck wondered, after the festival weekend, how to handle the long lines and wait for the shuttles.

Not that the delays are good in and of themselves, except as indicators of demand and desire, staff said. And there were plenty of them on October 16 and 17, for the 50th annual Kentuck Arts Festival.

As fall finally fell on opening Saturday, with daytime temperatures in the mid-1970s under mostly blue skies, what is estimated as the largest single-day crowd waited, most patiently, for be admitted to the gates of Kentuck Park.

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“It was probably close to 11,000 people on Saturday, more than we’ve ever had in a day,” said Ashley Williams, Kentuck’s marketing director. An overwhelmed front door staff couldn’t calculate the totals, as some bought for that day only, and others paid for the two-day discounted admission. Still others had seized passes in advance.

Customers look into the booths as they walk between rows of vendors at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts in Kentuck Park on Saturday October 21, 2017. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Even as they backed up in overloaded trucks, vans and motorhomes to unload goods, a number of the more than 250 performers said they were completely exhausted on day one and had to stock shelves for the nearest Sunday. .

“The artists we spoke to were very happy,” said Amy Echols, Executive Director of Kentuck. “They don’t have to report their sales to us, so eventually we’ll get those tax numbers, but we’re sure they’ve had record sales.”

As with any festival, experiences have varied, Williams said, but the consensus could be summed up in one word: Excited. Excited to be back after taking a pandemic year off, excited by the perfect weather, excited by teeming, eager crowds.

The artists, staff, volunteers, steering committee and board members also felt it, Echols said, and gave each other the grace, slacking off on each other while overcoming obstacles.

“I’ve spoken to people who have been coming for 30 years, 20 or 30 years,” said Williams, including travelers from all over the country, former residents, art collectors who came back thrilled for the 50th. of the festival.

“Their consensus on Saturday was ‘Oh my god, there are so many people here, I’ve never seen so many people,’” said Williams.

“Considering there was a time at the end of the summer when we weren’t even sure we were going to have it, just being here was an accomplishment in itself.”

The Kentuck Art Center in downtown Northport operates year-round, with exhibition spaces, artist studios, workshops, outreach programs, monthly art nights, a boutique gifts and more. Its central and founding event is the October Festival, a two-day cornucopia built around visual artists, artisans, musicians, poets and other creators, all gathered around the sun-drenched paths. of Kentuck Park.

It can’t appear like a Ray Bradbury carnival overnight: Kentuck staff work to build the festival year round, around other responsibilities.

“People have no idea,” Echols said. “But it’s worth it to see people stand in line for 20 minutes and not complain.

A youth participant in the clay mold festival at the Kentuck Arts Festival on Saturday, October 16, 2021. [Photo/Will McLelland]

“In fact, some weren’t complaining: they were actually bragging,” proud to see the beloved weekend come back after a forced sabbatical, and come back strong.

At 11:30 am Saturday, Echols stood over Northport Police Headquarters and saw a line “… longer than a football field, which has never happened in the 18 years I’ve been going there. “she said.

Queues are to be expected at the park’s various food and drink vendors, but the new queues for 2021 included those for the trailer-sized portable toilets, a complement to the usual row of porta -johns. Each of the larger facilities was equipped not only with a working toilet, but also a sink and running water for washing up.

These were part of the added COVID-19 concessions and protections, along with wider spacing between stands, disinfection stations throughout the park, signs encouraging distancing and a mask requirement at gates. Activities have also been reduced or modified in the childcare area, in order to reduce the risks.

Among the weekend guests were newbies, noted the staff, who had heard of the event but never made it before, now keen to have something to do, when one the first major non-football public events after vaccines became widely available, and as pandemic restrictions began to ease.

Kentuck organizers hope that fun will fuel the centre’s activities throughout the year. But after 50 years, from a Northport heritage street fair to the roots of the sprawling Kentuck tree, it’s surprising, they said, that some locals still don’t know about the festival, a renowned event international which has built its fame around the support of folk and foreign artists, as reported in Smithsonian Magazine, Southern Living, National Geographic Traveler and others.

This weekend’s festival-goers included visitors from as far away as the West Coast, Oregon and Washington, and deep in the Midwest, Chicago. Downtown hotels were nearly full, even on a weekend when football giant Crimson Tide was playing out of town.

The festival generates about half of Kentuck’s annual revenue, to maintain functions and pay a staff of six, so the 2020 cancellation took a deep bite. After the festival, staff traditionally take a few deserved days off, so Wednesday was the first day back to the full Kentuck office.

People line up for admission to the 50th annual Kentuck Arts Festival on October 16, 2021 at Kentuck Park in Northport. [Submitted photo]

Figures for sales and attendance cannot be finalized until taxes and other tolls are done, but a typical healthy festival earns around $ 325,000, from ticket sales and artist booth rentals. .

But it is against approximately $ 200,000 that must be disposed to create the imprint of the festival. In 2020, staff delayed making the difficult decision as late as possible, until mid-July, so the money had already been committed and could not be collected directly.

To help bridge the gap, both for the center and for artists who depend on their income, the Kentuck hosted an online art sale from October to the end of 2020 and launched the Kentuck Festival Forever Fund, a appeal for donations that brought individual gifts. ranging from $ 5 to $ 1,000 each.

Artists typically sell for between $ 350,000 and $ 400,000 over a weekend in Kentuck. Selling online, even going on for months, only earned a fraction of that.

But by adding to gallery sales – about a quarter of the centre’s annual income – grants, small business and nonprofit aid related to the pandemic, Kentuck was able to keep its doors open and continue paying staff.

Again for 2021, the decision to go or not to go was held until mid-July, largely due to the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 delta variant. Masks on, the Kentuck decided the 50th had and could come, counting last year’s online sale as the 49th.

Waiting so long made the stress for staff worse in late summer and early fall.

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“We’re in the pressure cooker until the Monday before the festival,” Echols said. “Then once we hit the pitch (at Kentuck Park), set up the cabins, that’s when my excitement starts to build.

“When the artists start arriving (Friday) all my stress goes away, because I know it’s too late to do anything else,” she said with a laugh.

Kentuck staff felt they had gained a few days off.

“It was really exhausting for the mind and the body,” said Williams, “but I didn’t know how much I needed it.”

A mother takes a photo of her child posing in front of the Kentuck Arts Festival's 50th anniversary sculpture on Saturday, October 16, 2021. [Photo/Will McLelland]

This year’s success should not only help bolster the budget performance, but also stimulate other programs at the center, she added. Along with the residual heat benefits of a good weekend getaway, newbies and others have started following Kentuck on social media, indicating their interest in future Art Nights, workshops and more.

“With the disruption of supply chains, maybe people will start to go back to small businesses,” Echols said. The Kentuck Gallery shop sells works by many of its festival-goers and other artists, offering unique and original handmade items.

“I think this experience will help put the work of our artists in the hands of the community,” she said, “and we will help each other.” To learn more about the center and its operations, see www.kentuck.org.

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