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Vancouver Folk Music Festival town hall provokes questions and criticism but no realistic path forward

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Around 220 supporters of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival showed up for an online town hall with the festival’s board of directors last Wednesday after the board postponed the organization’s annual general meeting in order to explore options for saving the festival.

But the meeting itself did not appear to produce any viable options for reviving the beloved event, which was founded in 1978 and has been held annually in Jericho Beach Park.

The board announced last month that the 2023 festival would not go ahead, citing massive cost increases coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic and demands by suppliers to be paid up front.

It also announced it would be putting forward a resolution at its AGM, then scheduled for Feb. 1, to dissolve the festival society.

The resulting outcry prompted board members to postpone the event by a month while it listened to ideas from the community.

GoFundMe? Pepper sales?

However, a number of people at the meeting simply demanded that the board rescind the motion for dissolution, without putting any alternatives on the table.

Some seemed unwilling to give the board – which includes Cambridge and Harvard Business School graduate Fil Hemming, Pioneer Community Living Association executive director Mark Zuberbuhler, and folk community stalwart Erin Mullen – credit for basic competence, quizzing members about whether they had done obvious due diligence such as asking the city for more funding.

Answer: Yes. Every year.

Others recommended solutions more often associated with school sports teams or children’s charities than an event with a budget of nearly $2 million: GoFundMe campaigns; asking Ryan Reynolds or Sarah McLachlan for help; convincing Vancouverites to buy pepper from a social enterprise that donates its proceeds to charities.

Is the festival anti-corporate?

Many people openly endorsed corporate sponsorship, something the festival has famously resisted. But even when faced with the imminent loss of the entire event and society, several people commenting on the meeting’s online “Thought Exchange” continued to qualify that endorsement by calling for “ethical sponsors,” which may rule out the banks, beer companies, wireless providers and auto manufacturers that typically pay big bucks to put their names on events.

Former board member Kris Klassen demanded to know why the festival was being described as anti-corporate when the board he served on had developed guidelines for selecting sponsors that were based on VanCity Credit Union’s guidelines for ethical investing.

Board vice president Fil Hemming explained that there’s a big difference between a financial institution choosing where to invest millions of dollars in assets and an arts organization choosing who to ask for money.

Experts in securing corporate sponsorship had told the festival their guidelines were unlikely to attract any sponsors, Fil said, so the board amended them to increase opportunities.

Still, said board member Karen Cooper, it takes three to five years to build relationships with the kinds of sponsors likely to contribute big money to an event.

No major offers of help

A number of people at the meeting seemed to get caught up on the question of why the board was a governance board rather than a working organizational board, arguing that board members should roll up their sleeves and get to work organizing the festival themselves.

Several meeting attendees called for enhanced fundraising efforts aimed at getting supporters of the festival to pledge more money toward it.

Board member Erin Mullen reminded people that fundraising is time-consuming and costly, and the organization has no money.

When asked point blank if anyone had come forward since the motion to dissolve was put on the table and offered a large cash donation or other resources of a level needed to save the festival, board president Mark replied starkly, “No.”

Mark began the Wednesday event with a presentation that illustrated how the festival had limped from deficit to deficit through much of its existence.

Ideas accepted until Feb. 10

While other major folk festivals across Canada coped with runaway capitalism by professionalizing their operations, pursuing sponsorship, squirreling away reserve funds in case of emergency, and, in some cases, investing in additional revenue streams, such as Calgary’s Blockheater and Festival Hall and Winnipeg’s concert series, Vancouver continued to focus on the single summer event and remained uncompromising on its ideals, refusing for years to even sully its festival site with a beer garden.

A portion of the crowd that gathered on Wednesday still seemed unwilling to accept that it was no longer possible to organize a festival like the ones to which they had grown accustomed without such sacrifices – and, perhaps at this point, at all.

Others thanked the board for its efforts and seemed willing to accept its solemn conclusion.

One or two offered long-term proposals that sounded plausible if only the festival could find enough money and resources to keep going long enough to implement them.

Notably, Randy Raine-Reusch proposed working with other festivals to develop a production co-op through which they would share ownership of costly rental-items such as fencing – though it’s unclear if even a large group of festivals could manage the upfront capital investment and storage costs, particularly when many grants exclude capital expenditures.

The festival is continuing to accept suggestions on its online Thought Exchange until Feb. 10. Those interested in offering suggestions can comment HERE.
 

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