Who Really Cancelled the Folk Festival?

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Monday, March 26, 2018, 7:48 am
Alice Dreger

Above: An artist applies henna to an attendee's hand at the 2015 Great Lakes Folk Festival.

The cancellation of the Great Lakes Folk Festival—which had been set to be held in downtown East Lansing this August as it has annually since 2002—has been unwelcome news to many artists, attendees, and downtown business owners. So how was the decision made, and why?

First, some background: ELi broke the news of the Festival’s cancellation on March 14, when we received the news from Marsha MacDowell, the Festival’s Director. According to MacDowell, the decision to cancel this year's festival had been made by MSU Museum’s new Director, Mark Auslander. (Auslander had arrived to East Lansing to become the Museum Director just before last year’s Folk Festival.) Auslander spoke with ELi the next day, confirming that it was his decision.

But a few days later, on March 19, in an email to members of the MSU History Department, Auslander framed the decision differently: “...the city of East Lansing and the Museum, in consultation with MSU Government and External Relations, made the decision to put the Folk Festival on a one year hiatus, to allow for a re-envisioning process.”

Asked at City Council's meeting the next day, March 20, whether it was true that the City had jointly agreed to cancel the festival, Mayor Mark Meadows said the decision had been made by MSU, not the City.

So, what really happened? ELi has now used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), along with follow-up questions to those involved, to try to ascertain how and why the decision was made.

What we’ve found is that the decision appears ultimately to have been that of Auslander, supported by the MSU administration. The reasons seem to have included the challenges of downtown construction, administrative decisions about funding, and Auslander’s view that the festival hasn’t been ethnically diverse enough in audience under the leadership of MacDowell and her spouse, Kurt Dewhurst.

But no one in East Lansing’s government leadership appears to have fought the decision. FOIA also shows that, once the decision to cancel had been publicized by ELi and was drawing criticism, the Mayor looked to distance himself and the City from the choice.

Changes in “strategic directions”:

In February of this year, Auslander contacted Meadows, telling him he wanted to “understand how the festival contributes to the city” and to find ways to partner. He wrote to Meadows, “I know there’s been a great deal of conversation about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, especially in the context of ongoing construction (and major changes in terms of the strategic directions of the Museum)….”

What major changes in strategic directions at the Museum? According to several sources within MSU who do not wish to be named, Auslander (photo below) feels the Museum and the Folk Festival have lacked ethnic diversity of the kind he thinks should be present. The Festival was inadequately diverse, from his point of view, in terms of artists and audience.

That’s consistent with what Auslander told ELi when we talked to him after our initial report of the cancellation. It’s also consistent with what Auslander told us most recently when we asked him about how the cancellation happened. In response to that inquiry, he encouraged ELi to focus instead on the MSU Museum’s current exhibit, “Migration Now.”

In an email to ELi, Auslander said the current Museum exhibit’s concerns are “a good deal more urgent than the folk festival. Or at least are worthy of serious coverage: they remind us how art holds up a deeply meaningful mirror to all [of] us, as we ponder the fates of the least fortunate among us, at a time when friends and neighbors face detention and deportation, and our nation is riven by seemingly intractable debates over who belongs and who doesn’t.”

What happened before the cancellation became public:

On March 2, Auslander wrote to Meadows asking for “a conversation about the Folk Festival.” He said he wanted to see if they could “find a way to make this summer a productive period of reflection.” He added, with regard to this year’s festival, “We haven’t signed any contracts yet, but are under pressure to do so.” Auslander met with three members of East Lansing’s Arts Commission and told Meadows they “do share all our concerns.”

But the Arts Commission doesn't seem to have been so concerned about anything that it wanted to cancel the Festival. Arts Commission Chair Sarah Gonzales Triplett tells ELi, “Mark Auslander reached out to ask what role the Arts Commission could play should MSU decide to ‘re-imagine’ the Folk Festival. At no point were we asked nor did we offer input on the decision to cancel the event.”

A meeting was held on March 7 that included Auslander, Meadows, East Lansing Director of Parks and Rec Tim McCaffrey, and Janet Lillie, MSU’s Assistant Vice President for Community Relations as assigned to East Lansing. Lillie (photo below) tells ELi the meeting was to talk about “a one-year hiatus” of the festival.

According to Lillie, “All of us are on board that a one-year hiatus makes sense.” She says considerations included the Museum’s budget and that “this event occurs when the vast majority of MSU students are not in town and general attendance has dwindled over the years as well.” (Asked for data on attendance, Lillie, Auslander, and the City have not produced it.)

About a week after the meeting of Lillie, Auslander, Meadows, and McCaffrey, on March 13, Auslander wrote to Meadows to propose a joint press release that would announced that “The City of East Lansing and the MSU Museum jointly agree that the Great Lakes Folk Festival should be placed on a one year hiatus during 2018. We are mindful of extensive construction in the downtown area during summer 2018....”

In his cover email, Auslander told Meadows, “Kurt and Marsha [the long-time Directors of the Festival] are pretty upset it turns out, and will presumably come over to talk to you and George [Lahanas, City Manager]. I wish we were all on the same page, but this is I am sure the right decision, both from a museum standpoint and I hope in terms of continuing to building [sic] a strong relationship with the city, which is a very high priority for all of us.”

The next day, Marsha MacDowell spoke to ELi at length about the cancellation and why she thought it was a bad idea, and we published the news. Shortly before that publication, we asked Auslander, Meadows, McCaffrey, and Lahanas for confirmation of the cancellation and comment, but they did not immediately respond. FOIA indicates they were busy discussing how to answer ELi, and then how to answer other media outfits following up on ELi’s report.

The Mayor tried to distance the City from the decision to cancel:

The day after the news broke, Auslander went back-and-forth with City representatives, including Meadows, to try to come to agreement on a joint press release. Meadows’ email to Auslander suggests they hadn’t anticipated MacDowell going public first: “somebody let the cat out of the bag and we are sort of in damage control. We can still do a joint statement.”

Meadows (photo below) advised Auslander, “You need to emphasize that this is not a cancellation, it is a reimagining.” Meanwhile, Meadows told City Manager Lahanas, “I don’t want it to be our decision.”

The drafted press release was accordingly changed, revising the opening line from saying the cancellation had been jointly agreed upon to now saying it was the decision (only) of the MSU Museum. The revised press release also included the wording Meadows recommended emphasizing, about “reimagining the festival.”

Auslander, however, seemed reluctant afterwards to take the blame alone, as noted above, telling the MSU History Department on March 19 that it had been a decision of his along with the City of East Lansing. Asked to explain this, Auslander wrote to ELI on March 21:

“I suppose there are inevitable differences in interpretation following such conversations. The ultimate decision was certainly mine, as museum director, as the person holding ultimate responsibility for the allocation of the museum’s financial and staff resources. The city leadership always indicated that they would, if the Museum really wanted to move forward with the festival, honor the standing and allocated commitment from the city’s end. But we did talk through the whole matter carefully together and came to, I would say, a reasoned meeting of the minds about what seemed best for all concerned. So it seemed to me we were are all part of a shared decision making process, even if the final call had to rest, inevitably, on my shoulders.”

An unpopular decision among various constituents:

Some downtown business owners (who do not wish to be named) tell ELi that the loss of the festival is significant for them. That is true particularly this year as they struggle with loss of customers caused by construction of the Center City District project.

Even in a year without construction, downtown businesses struggle during the summer to overcome the seasonal absence of many MSU students and faculty. One local shop owner tells ELi the Folk Festival ordinarily doubled his business during the festival.

Artists and residents, too, have been indicating they feel let down by the cancellation.

East Lansing resident David Klein wrote to City Council after reading of the cancellation to say, “The loss of this festival has been very emotional to many people in this part of Michigan." Klein asked Council to please try to find a way to hold the festival this year.

As he noted in his message to Council, besides attending the festival, Klein has performed in it. He plays trumpet, cornet, and flugelhorn and is in the band Heartland Klezmorim, which, according to the group’s website, performs “old-time klezmer music” along with “music from the Yiddish theatre, Yiddish/klezmer swing, and jazz interpretations of klezmer music.”

“The festival has been around for many years and not only was important to the arts community,” Klein wrote to Council, “it was important to the local economy as well.”

Klein added, “The construction has been used as part of the central reasoning for placing the festival on hiatus. As far as I know, the [construction] space can never be used [again] for any festival. The East Lansing Arts Festival and the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival have been looking for replacement sights. Why couldn’t the Great Lake Folks Festival find a temporary replacement site?”

FOIA does not indicate any response from Council or City management to Klein.

The City Manager and Mayor have also not answered follow-up questions from ELi about whether they did anything to try to keep the festival happening this year, and whether the City will be doing anything to help downtown businesses make up for the loss of the festival this year.



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