Independence, KS: Astra Arts Festival
How can an innovative arts festival help a small rural town come together and spark its economy?
The William Inge Center for the Arts at Independence Community College (ICC) in Independence, Kansas, partnered with the City of Independence to the Astra Arts Festival. In 2014, the summer festival debuted with seven music, twenty-six (26) literary, eight visual art, two culinary and three theater events. Focusing on a theme of Kansas and Midwestern art, the festival spilled into various venues around the town: libraries, local businesses, churches, schools, and even the streets.
Founded in 1869, Independence is a rural community located in the southeastern corner of Kansas, 90 miles north of Tulsa, OK. With a population of 9,200, the small city is also the county seat of Montgomery County. Historically, the economy was based on agriculture and oil and gas exploration, refining, and transportation. Later, light manufacturing grew important. In recent years, however, the oil and gas industries have decreased their activities, and some of the light manufacturing has left the region. This decline has contributed to Montgomery County having the third highest unemployment rate among the 105 counties in Kansas.
The City of Independence has a number of attractive attributes and historical traditions. Its downtown is an official Main Street community. It is home to the Little House on The Prairie historic site, where the novelist Laura Ingalls Wilder lived, and Riverside Park which includes an elaborate aquatic center, park, and zoo. In addition, for 34 years ICC has produced The William Inge Theatre Festival, the official theater festival of Kansas, named for native son William Inge, a Pulitzer Prize (“Picnic”) and Oscar (“Splendor in the Grass”)- winning writer. Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, and Stephen Sondheim have been among the Inge Festival's honorees, and attended the Festival to physically accept their awards.
In light of the city's history and current state, two strong community needs were identified by local community organizations. They desired: 1) Cultural programming that is relevant to local residents and accessible to all; and 2) programming that would stimulate the city's economic life, preferably in its downtown core. While recognizing the intrinsic value of “art for art’s sake,” the stakeholders with whom the Inge Center spoke valued “access” most of all. For the organizations, that meant not only arts education for children but also public art and learning opportunities for adults.
The original concept for the Festival involved developing performance art works around local stories and culture. However, upon meeting with community members, the project's goals changed as the community expressed a desire to bring in outside performers and hear their stories as they already knew their own stories. In response to these conversations, the Astra Arts Festival's governing board reduced the number of planned performances, and expanded planned activities in other artistic disciplines. For example, the literary discipline was expanded to more than 30 events, including several events for kids. Additionally, a mural was commissioned to improve a previously unsightly downtown wall. All events were envisioned to be low-key and held in informal spaces to encourage interaction between community members and the artists. By moving the festival outside theatre walls into selected venues around town, the Festival would transform non-arts venues including schools, retail spaces, and libraries into art spaces. Taking place during the summer months, the festival was imagined as a event that would help to provide a sustained and diverse program of performing arts. The event was named the Astra Arts Festival in recognition of the official state motto, Ad Astra per Aspera (“to the stars through difficulties”), thus tapping into the identity of Kansas to help shape the program.
THE BOARD ADOPTED THE SLOGAN “WORLD CLASS ART, SMALL TOWN HOSPITALITY.”
From the outset, the William Inge Center for the Arts knew it was essential to invite and encourage close working relationships among different types of organizations throughout the community. This meant forming sincere partnerships, where each party truly listened and, at times, compromised. To bring these various partner organizations together and set aside adequate time for community input, the planning process began 20 months prior to the event. The Inge Center identified 16 local partners who were eager to host or work on core elements of the event and agreed with the Festival's vision of wide artistic access and community economic development. The local municipal government, the Chamber of Commerce, and Main Street, Inc. were crucial early, and enthusiastic, partners. Each partner organization was represented either on the Festival's governing board or committees. This structure gave stakeholders ample opportunity to collaborate. Beyond the 16 official partners, the Festival unofficially partnered with venues ordinarily “not invited” to local arts events, such as private businesses, the public library, and historic sites. “The program brought many people and organizations to the table to work together who haven't done so before,” said board president Don Farthing. “We tried very hard to be completely inclusive of anyone wanting to participate.”
“This town is very person-to-person oriented,” said Astra Arts Festival board president Don Farthing. Because of this, the William Inge Center for the Arts decided it was important to have community buy-in. As such, it invited its partners to be part of a new non- profit organization to govern the event. Separate committees for each art discipline—literature, music, theatre, and visual art—were created and granted significant leeway in planning artistic programming. These were complemented by three organizational committees: marketing, fundraising, and hospitality. Inge Center staff became support staff for the committees, and were assigned to program portions of the festival. Events included writing workshops and discussions, live readings, a literary crawl (readings held at a number of local venues of works that related to the venue), poetry slams, a book sale, concerts, plays, art exhibits, and the development and installation of two murals. Much of the event planning and support was provided by volunteers. Volunteers were recruited and organized by each committee as needed. The biggest logistical challenged proved to be finalizing a budget for the festival as the entire governing board was in effect the “budgeting committee.” To achieve consensus, the fundraising committee worked with the marketing committee to propose across-the-board budget reductions.
Taking place from July 3-13, 2014, the Astra Arts Festival brought together different communities and neighborhoods in unprecedented ways. Over the course of the festival, residents and visitors had the opportunity to experience a diverse range of art disciplines and programming and socialize with fellow community members. By programming in alternate venues and partnering with many types of organizations it had not worked with before, the Inge Center was able to expand its already committed audience and bring art directly to the public. 3,500 people attended the Festival—about half to priced, ticketed events, half to free events. To determine the economic impact of the event, the William Inge Center for the Arts compared the city's July 2014 tax receipts—when the first ever Astra Arts Festival was held—with an average of the July tax receipts from 2010 through 2013. The July 2014 City of Independence's transient occupancy tax receipts totaled $32,083.86 while the previous tax receipts averaged $23,148.83. Therefore, the July 2014 tax receipts exceeded the average by 28 percent. Using the Americans for the Arts Economic Impact Calculator, it was also determined that the Astra Arts Festival generated roughly $12,000 in local and $14,000 in state government revenue.
Many of the unexpected impacts were intangible and not readily measured, as the Astra Arts Festival met with more enthusiasm than organizers had anticipated. After a slow start, businesses responded to a standard pledge drive; one unexpectedly chose to make a major gift, simply by observing the work going on. Volunteer support was expected, but larger than anticipated. In essence, excitement grew as the project neared, as did positive-word-of-mouth. Within days of the last performance, local citizens were inquiring when the next festival was going to happen and asking how they could help. Local business owners told board members to not forget them for the next festival, as they wanted to get on board earlier and play a larger role financially. For the most part, the audience came from the local and surrounding counties, yet there were still a lot of out-of- town visitors; organizers did not anticipate that close to 6 percent of attendees would come from more than an hour away, or that the city’s July 2014 motel tax receipts would be 34.7 percent higher than the average of the previous four years, as shown in county tax receipts.
MIRACLES HAPPEN WHERE ARTISTS GATHER. [THE PROJECT] IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR US TO DEMONSTRATE ONCE AGAIN THAT WE HAVE THE CAPACITY AND TENACITY TO ACCOMPLISH PROJECTS AS A RESULT OF OUR STRONG SENSE OF COMMUNITY AND VOLUNTEERISM. - Deb Puryear, Independence Convention and Visitors Bureau
Independence Community College
The William Inge Festival Foundation
The William Inge Center for the Arts
Independence Chamber of Commerce
Independence Children’s Summer Theatre
Unified School District 446
The Little House on the Prairie Museum
Montgomery County Action Council
City of Independence Kansas
The Neewollah Festival
Midwest Computer Solutions
Independence Historical Museum & Art Center
Kansas Celebrity Hall of Fame
Main Street Independence
Alf Landon House Historical Site
Independence Public Library
Volunteers stepped up from all walks of life to make the festival possible. Their essential work included driving to and from the airport, backstage logistical support, guest housing, and food services, all without compensation or reimbursement.