Under the category of good problems to suffer, the Kentuck staff has been pondering, post-festival weekend, how to deal with long lines and waits for shuttle buses.
Not that delays are themselves good, except as indicators of demand and desire, staff said. And there was a lot of both Oct. 16 and Oct. 17, for the 50th Annual Kentuck Festival of the Arts.
As fall finally fell on that opening Saturday, with daytime temperatures mid-70s under mostly blue skies, what’s estimated as the largest-ever single-day crowd waited, most of them patiently, to gain admission at the Kentuck Park gates.
“It was probably close to 11,000 people on Saturday, more than we’ve ever had in one day,” said Ashley Williams, Kentuck’s marketing manager. An overwhelmed front-gate staff couldn’t tally totals, as some purchased for just that day, and others paid for the two-day discounted admission. Still others entering had grabbed passes in advance.
Even while they backed up in overloaded trucks, vans and RVs to unload wares, a number of the more than 250 artists reported selling completely out on the first day, and having to refill shelves for the Sunday closer.
“Artists we talked to were very pleased,” said Amy Echols, Kentuck’s executive director. “They are not required to report their sales to us, so we’ll eventually get those figures from tax people, but we are assured they had record sales.”
As with any festival, experiences 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, avid crowds.
Artists, staff, volunteers, steering committee and board members felt it, too, Echols said, and gave each other grace, cut one another slack while overcoming obstacles.
“I talked to people who have been coming for 30 years, 20 or 30 years,” Williams said, including travelers from around the country, from former residents, from art collectors who returned thrilled for the festival’s 50th.
“Their consensus on Saturday was ‘Oh my gosh, there are so many people here; I’ve never seen it so crowded,’ ” Williams said.
“Considering there was a point late in the summer when we weren’t even sure we were going to have it, just being here was an accomplishment in itself.”
Downtown Northport’s Kentuck Art Center operates all year around, with exhibit spaces, artists’ studios, workshops, outreach programs, monthly Art Nights, a gift shop and more. Its central and founding event is the October festival, a two-day cornucopia built around visual artists, craftspeople, musicians, poets and other creatives, all gathered around sun-dappled paths in Kentuck Park.
It can’t just pop up overnight like a Ray Bradbury carnival: Kentuck staff works to build the festival all year, around other responsibilities.
“People don’t have a clue,” Echols said. “But it’s all worth it to see people stand in line for 20 minutes, and not complain.
“In fact, some weren’t complaining: They were actually bragging,” proud to see the much-beloved weekend return after an enforced year off, and coming back strong.
At 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Echols stood on top of the Northport police’s headquarters, and saw a line “… longer than a football field, which had never happened in the 18 years I’ve been going,” she said.
Lines are to be expected at the park’s various food and drink vendors, but new queues for 2021 included those at trailer-sized portable bathrooms, an adjunct to the usual row of porta-johns. Each of the larger facilities came equipped not only with a working toilet, but sink and running water for washing up.
Those were among COVID-19-related concessions and protections added, along with wider spacing between booths, sanitizer stations throughout the park, signs encouraging distancing, and a mask requirement at the gates. Activities were curtailed or changed at the kids’ hands-on area as well, to reduce risks.
Among the weekend’s guests were first-timers, staff noted, who’d heard about the event yet never made it in before, eager now to have something to do, at one of the first big non-football public events after vaccines became widely available, and as pandemic restrictions have begun to ease.
Kentuck organizers hope that enjoyment feeds into checking out the center’s yearlong activities. But after 50 years, counting from a Northport heritage street fair at the roots of Kentuck’s sprawling tree, it’s surprising, they said, that some locals still don’t even know about the festival, an internationally-recognized event that built its fame around support of folk and outsider artists, as written up in Smithsonian Magazine, Southern Living, National Geographic Traveler and others.
Festival-goers this weekend included visitors from as far as the west coast, Oregon and Washington, and deep in the Midwest, Chicago. Downtown hotels had near full houses, even on a weekend when the Crimson Tide football behemoth played out of town.
The festival generates roughly half Kentuck’s yearly income, to keep up functions and pay a six-person staff, so the 2020 cancellation took a deep bite. Post-festival, staff traditionally takes a couple days’ earned rest, so Wednesday was Kentuck’s first day fully staffed back in the office.
Numbers for sales and attendance can’t be finalized until tax and other tallies are made, but a typical healthy festival earns about $325,000, through ticket sales and artists’ booth rentals.
But that’s against the roughly $200,000 that must be laid out to create the festival footprint. In 2020, staff held off on making the hard decision late as possible, into mid-July, so that money had already been committed, and couldn’t be directly recouped.
To help bridge the gap, both for the center and for artists who depend on the income, Kentuck hosted an online art sale from October through the end of 2020, and began the Kentuck Festival Forever Fund, an appeal for donations that brought in individual gifts ranging from $5 to $1,000 each.
Artists typically sell about $350,000 to $400,000 during a Kentuck weekend. The online sale, even running for months, brought in just a fraction of that.
But adding in gallery-shop sales – about a quarter of the center’s annual income – grants, small business and non-profit assistance tied to the pandemic, Kentuck was able to keep its doors open, and continue paying staff.
Again for 2021, the go-or-don’t-go decision was held until mid-July, largely due to uncertainty dragged in by the COVID-19 delta variant. Masks on, Kentuck decided the 50th needed to, and could, happen, counting last year’s online sale as the 49th.
Waiting so long piled on staff stress in the late summer and early fall runup.
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“We’re in the pressure cooker until Monday before the festival,” Echols said. “Then, once we hit the grounds (in Kentuck Park), setting the booths up, that’s when my excitement starts to build.
“When the artists start arriving (on Friday), all of my stress goes away, because I know it’s too late to do anything else,” she said, laughing.
Kentuck staffers felt they’d earned a few days off.
“It was really exhausting for the mind and body,” Williams said, “but I didn’t know how much I needed it.”
This year’s success should not only help bolster the budgetary bottom line, but also boost other programming at the center, she added. In addition to the benefits of warm afterglow from a fine weekend, newbies and others began following Kentuck on social media, indicating interest in future Art Nights, workshops and such.
“With supply chains being interrupted, maybe people will now start going back to small businesses,” Echols said. Kentuck’s gallery shop offers for sale works by many of its festival folk, and other artists, offering one-of-a-kind, original handmade items
“I think this experience is going to help get our artists’ work into the hands of the community,” she said, “and we’ll help each other out.” For more on the center and its operations, see www.kentuck.org.