Museum Director Explains Folk Festival “Hiatus”

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Thursday, March 15, 2018, 3:50 pm
Alice Dreger

Above: Mark Auslander and the ukulele jam tent at the festival last year.

ELi broke the news yesterday that East Lansing will not be seeing the Great Lake Folk Festival this summer as expected. This afternoon we reached MSU Museum Director Mark Auslander who explained his reasons for putting the festival on what he called “hiatus.”

Auslander’s reasons include a perceived need to “reimagine” the festival, including the desire to draw a more diverse audience from the greater Lansing area, and to make the festival more sustainable. Auslander also named the challenge of putting on the festival in East Lansing while major construction is underway downtown, and named a need for MSU to spend its resources in a way that serves its undergraduates throughout the year.

While some commenting on the festival’s cancellation have speculated it is related to the City’s budget problems, Auslander did not name the City’s budgetary problems as a cause of the festival not happening, and did not indicate a problem with funding for putting on the festival as usual this summer. (Inquiries to the City of East Lansing from ELi about the festival’s cancellation have gone unanswered so far.) ELi noted yesterday that the City had already committed funds to this year’s festival.

Speaking to ELi by phone, Auslander said he understood that Great Lake Folks Festival Director Marsha MacDowell had told ELi the festival was “cancelled,” but that he prefers to say “it is on hiatus for this year while we do this re-imagining process with the City, the Arts Commission, performers,” and others.

Construction downtown “was not insurmountable but did make it that much harder” in terms of managing car and pedestrian access, getting electricity and other resources where they are needed, and so forth. He sees those challenges as a good reason to now put the festival on hiatus and reassess its approach. He described the festival as going through “death by a thousand cuts” and unlikely to be sustainable in its current form.

Asked about whether he is concerned about the impact on downtown businesses already suffering a significant downturn in clientele due to the construction, Auslander said downtown business vitality is certainly a concern. But, he said, he believes downtown businesses will be better served in the long run by many events over the year than they are by a three-day festival. “We want to explore all that. We are hoping listening or reimagining will do that.”

He suggested that pop-up exhibits downtown over the summer and the academic year would “let people know downtown is open for business.” He sees this as a good route to economic stimulus. “We have a strong sense of responsibility to our partners in the business community,” he told ELi, “and it is far from clear that the mini-boom-town phenomenon of a two-to-three-day festival is best for our business partners.”

But can businesses downtown afford to have the festival cancelled this particular year, when they are suffering from the impact of construction? “Well, we will find out,” he said. He said this issue was “not necessarily what we’ve been hearing through the City.” Before coming to MSU, Auslander worked in a number of big cities, including Seattle, Atlanta, Boston, and Philadelphia.

What he says is a lack of diversity of the festival is a central point of concern for Auslander. “We know the festival, while it has diversity in performers, in terms of [audience] attendance is nowhere near reflective of the diversity of the Greater Lansing area.” He says he wants to “slow things down, bring everyone together in a bigger circle, hold up a tough mirror and ask what we are doing right and what we could do better.”

“Nowadays we live in a society that is pretty polarized,” said Auslander. “We want to do that differently, and create a truly inclusive process, to move us forward.” He said he thinks “arts needs to be pushing the envelope, edgy.”

As for this summer’s festival, there were not yet any contractual obligations to performers, according to Auslander. “That’s one of the reasons we worked on this process with the City now and not later,” he told ELi. “No agencies or performers were out in any sense.” He said this discussion with the City has been going on for some time.

Auslander says that the National Endowment for the Arts grant of $20,000 for the festival will have to be returned, and that that amounts to about 5% of the cost of the festival. He says the grant from the State of Michigan can likely be repurposed for other arts activities.

Auslander did say that there has always been “enormous financial challenges” to doing the festival. “We are looking at a budgetary environment on the university side that means we have less and less resources for events, especially those held in the summer months when we can’t reach our undergraduates.” He noted MSU is a land grant institution “with a sacred mission” to put MSU students first.

While Auslander says it’s “very hard to get good numbers” on festival attendance, he indicated that City leadership tells him that attendance has been declining. “We were getting indications of lower attendance and lower buzz, lower excitement, and all that suggests it’s time to do some rethinking.”

He said there were “pockets of high energy, and some of the improv traditional music sessions are just fantastic, but lots of people, including our private sector donors, were saying it is lackluster, sterile, predictable, not surprising. We know we can do a lot better than that.”

At the end of our interview, Auslander added that the Museum is holding a 160th anniversary celebration on Monday, "and it will be a lot of fun." About an hour later, ELi received word of a possible protest being planned in conjunction with that event, to protest the cancellation of the festival.


Update, March 15, 6 pm: The City of East Lansing released the following statement jointly with the MSU Museum:

"The MSU Museum has determined that the Great Lakes Folk Festival should be placed on a one-year hiatus during 2018. The City of East Lansing recognizes and understands that taking a pause to consider the long-term future direction of the festival, combined with the extensive construction in the downtown area, affords both the MSU Museum and the City an opportunity to continue to work together in a productive process in the months ahead. We look forward to a joint effort between the MSU Museum and the City of East Lansing in facilitating community conversations regarding a new version of this highly visible and popular festival."

The City's press release on the statement added, "The Great Lakes Folk Festival is an MSU Museum event previously hosted on an annual basis in downtown East Lansing."


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