I was at Timmerman’s in Dubuque eating dinner with a small group of friends in the arts and music world. As our waiter slid a classic supper-club plate of ribeye and baked potato in front of me, I listened to Sam Summers, an astute promoter who lives in Des Moines. He talked about his summer music festival Hinterland (Aug 3-4 in St. Charles, IA) and he commented on its size. He said the outdoor venue where he hosts the festival can support about 14,000 attendees on each day of the festival. The 2017 festival had about 10,000 people on each day. Listening to the artists he was planning on for the next event, everyone at the table knew it was going to be a hit in 2018. Someone asked, “So what will you do when it gets bigger, will you grow?” Sam spoke slowly with passion and assured confidence. “No,” he said. “This is the perfect size. We don’t want to be bigger than this space. This is the perfect experience.”
I looked at my baked potato, a big hunk of butter dissipating where the potato had been sliced, salt and pepper specked liberally across the surface. I thought about Sam’s words; I deeply admired his intent to design the right festival, to build an experience beyond the suffocating grasp of endless growth expectations. I am interested in the principles of change for festivals: What metrics should dictate how these events change over time? One’s community is always shifting, quietly becoming what it will clearly look like 10-15 years down the line. Festivals are driven by programmatic missions but how does a mission evolve in tandem with its community? A parallel challenge: as festivals experience success they are often expected to embrace continual growth, so when is an event’s growth appropriate and when is growth antithetical to the tenants of the event’s mission and the values of its community?
As Mission Creek Festival approaches each spring (the 13th festival launches April 3-8, 2018), these philosophical questions zip back and forth like bumper cars in my head. Our festival has weathered much internal debate on how it should change over time. Even when we started in 2006, as an underground/DIY event in the music and literary worlds, our program explored a space between the known and the unknown. We asked our citizens from the beginning to trust us and and follow us down the path of an unpredictable week of rewarding experiences. By 2009, that programming vision had further solidified: We honored classic independent voices (GZA), welcomed emerging sounds (Beach House), provided a platform for the avant-garde (Daniel Higgs), and highlighted literary bravery (Edmund White).
As we grew, Iowa’s market for festivals, in particular music festivals, also shifted: 80-35 emerged in Des Moines, then Garp in Maquoketa and GAS in Davenport, and Hinterland in St. Charles. This growth in our regional commitment to arts and culture, helped us to more deeply focus our energy and expectations to the most relevant priority: How is our event helping us achieve the best version of Iowa City and, by proxy, the best version of Iowa? It occurred to me at some point – perhaps more recently than I’d like to admit – that if Mission Creek eventually gets bigger then that’s fine but the goal is to get better, to deepen our collective connection to this place through the life-changing experience of art.
In our efforts to get better we have developed an understanding that above all else we serve our community and we serve artists. We seek to activate those of us who have been here for our whole lives, those of us who came for college and decided to stick around, and those who showed up for a new job three months ago, those of us who dispose of income, those of us who rarely have a dollar to spend, those of us who walk around downtown Iowa City freely and with comfort, those of us who have never seen their own culture or felt comfort in downtown Iowa City, those who live in the heart of the machine, and those who live in the fields just a few miles beyond. We seek to renew our dedication to this place we live in, to embrace it as home, and to make it a temporary home for all the artists who visit us. We hope that our audience sees revelatory, weird, warm, and beautiful work – and we hope that in some way they also feel themselves in a song, a reading, a discussion, or a meal. Our goal is to achieve such transcendence – if only once in all of our years – through the lens of an arts festival.
Sitting at dinner, listening to Summers and my other colleagues, I felt proud about the spread of events across the state – in awe that our small festival might play even a minuscule role in shaping how people feel about living here. That fleeting, yet important spark, helped affirm that at all costs it is important to keep trying, to keep moving forward.
221 E. Washington St.
Iowa City, Iowa 52240