Is the Future of the East Lansing Art Festival Now in Doubt?

Tuesday, October 1, 2019, 7:15 am
By: 
Mark Meyer

Two days prior to its September 19 meeting, members of the East Lansing Arts Commission received a surprising memo from the Department of Parks, Recreation and Arts asking for review and advisement of a proposed ordinance that would create a new commission to oversee the annual East Lansing Art Festival.

At least one member of the Arts Commission is now concerned this could soon mean the end of the biggest, longest-running, and best known of East Lansing’s festivals.

For years, the festival has been overseen by the volunteer Board of Directors of the independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization that has the name East Lansing Art Festival (ELAF).

But if City Council were to pass it as drafted, Ordinance 1472 would create a nine-member Art Festival Commission responsible for management and oversight of the festival. The group would work in conjunction with a City liaison and would be responsible for:

  • all fundraising and budgeting;
  • selection of artists, food concession vendors, and musicians;
  • marketing, advertising and promotion of the festival.

In essence, the Art Festival Commission would replace the ELAF Board of Directors—of which there is currently only one returning member, Kayla Finertie.

To outgoing Board President Alison Alfredson (above), who served for four seasons, getting rid of the ELAF nonprofit and taking control away from its Board of Directors appears to be the specific intent.

“From what I understand, the memo basically outlines our bylaws,” said Alfredson, acknowledging that the goal is subsuming her group’s role.

Confirmation of this came on Friday in an email from Mikell Frey, communications personnel for the City: “The Commission, if formed, would take the place of the Art Festival Board of Directors,” wrote Frey to ELi.

“The ordinance is under consideration at this point,” wrote Frey, “so an introduction date has not been set. The ordinance was drafted for the purposes of possibly establishing an East Lansing Art Festival Commission in order to ensure closer alignment and direction between the City and festival.”

Earlier this spring, the City removed long-time Art Festival Director Michelle Carlson and then appointed MSU Museum staff member Julie Levy-Weston to oversee the 56th edition of the downtown event. At issue was handling of funds for the festival.

The City is expected to announce formally in October the appointment of Heather Majano, the City’s current community events specialist, to a new position as Art Festival and Arts Initiatives Coordinator.

Arts Commission member Matt Borghi-Weil expressed concern to ELi upon review of the proposed ordinance.

“I believe [if Ordinance 1472] goes to Council and is approved, as-is, that will be ‘good bye’ to the arts festival,” Borghi-Weil said, “especially in light of losing major donors like McLaren and Jackson National dropping out over the fallout prior to Michelle Carlson’s dismissal.”

Alfredson said successful fundraising is extremely important to the festival’s future.

“It’s not easy, that’s for sure,” Alfredson said. “To consistently raise money for the art festival requires a real pro who knows the festival, and who knows what it takes to attract and retain sponsors.”

And that would be very difficult for someone to take on under a whole new administrative structure when the festival is less than eight months away.

Borghi-Weil said he wonders if the point is to let the festival die by setting up an impossible task for a group of late-appointed volunteers.

While the Art Festival is an economic benefit to the community, it costs the City of East Lansing in terms of direct and indirect funding each year, and some Council members may believe it is time to end the City’s financial support.

Mayor Mark Meadows has said in a number of public meetings that he thinks it’s time to have a group like the East Lansing Art Commission voluntarily manage the festival.

Council member Ruth Beier has suggested in recent budget talks that she believes funding for the arts should be cut because the provision of art is not an essential city service, and the City is continuing to face difficult budgetary choices.

As ELi has reported, it is common for Meadows and Beier to form a decision-making majority with Erik Altmann. Passage of an ordinance like this requires three or more votes among the five Council members.

With Council elections coming up November 5, and Meadows and Altmann running for re-election, some voters might see the future of the Art Festival and who pays for it as issues to consider at the ballot box.

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