Free State Festival attendance nearly double that of last year; organizers looking forward to 2016

Attendance at last month’s Free State Festival came close to doubling that of the previous year, Lawrence Arts Center organizers said.

The weeklong festival, which wrapped up Sunday, attracted more than 20,000 people to downtown Lawrence, according to estimates from the Arts Center.

Susan Tate, executive director of the Lawrence Arts Center, said that number comes from the events that counted attendees, though it doesn’t include folks who walked by the festival’s outdoor art installations or rode through the Lawrence Arts District on the PUB/ART trolley tour.

“I think this is the first time this really felt like a citywide festival. Other entities — KU, the Lawrence Public Library, Liberty Hall — really stepped up to the plate to take co-ownership of the event,” said Marlo Angell, the festival’s artistic director of film and performance. “It felt like the city as a whole was really excited to celebrate art in this week together.”

In 2014, an estimated 12,000 people attended the first Free State Festival. Formerly known as the Free State Film Festival, the event expanded last year to incorporate music, art and ideas-related activities into the mix.

A free performance by George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic on June 24 drew the biggest crowd, Tate said, with around 8,000 people congregating outside the Arts Center. She said movies were well-attended this year (the Elliot Smith-centered documentary “Heaven Adores You,” followed by a Smith tribute from local musician Matt Pryor, was a highlight) as well as talks with novelists-screenwriters Dennis Lehane and Jon Ronson.

The first-ever Free State Festival Beer Dinner also sold out, Tate said. The event hosted more than 100 people at Maceli’s Banquet Hall and Catering.

Next year’s festival should also fall within the last week of June. Tate said she’d like to continue working with artists from the Lawrence area as well as those visiting from other regions. This year, the Free State Festival commissioned or contracted more than 100 artists, she said.

Citing 2015 festival guests Bobcat Goldthwait and Tig Notaro, Marlo said her wish list for next year includes more “cross-disciplinary artists” who attract attendees of different interests.

In the meantime, organizers are working to gauge the success of last month’s festival.

In addition to a brand-new survey distributed to festival attendees, Tate said organizers are also working with the city and Downtown Lawrence Inc. to determine the economic impact of the festival on local businesses.

Sally Zogry, executive director of Downtown Lawrence Inc., described the last week of June — which hosted both the Free State Festival and the Tour of Lawrence cycling event — as a “big week for downtown” with almost “too much to do.”

“There was a lot of foot and vehicle traffic,” Zogry said. “Retailers definitely got some out-of-town people.”