Weeklong Free State Festival canceled for next year; organizers looking for new model

This Journal-World file photo shows a large crowd filling the 900 block of New Hampshire Street for a free concert by Public Enemy as part of the Free State Festival on Saturday night, June 25, 2016.

Organizers of the Free State Festival have canceled 2017’s weeklong event, which in recent years has included headliner comedians, authors and musicians.

Because of funding shortfalls — including some caused by a new city policy — Festival Director Sarah Bishop said the festival will take a “breather year” and organizers plan to come up with a five-year business plan to ensure the longevity of the festival in the future.

“Every year we just break even or lose some money,” Bishop said. “And so we’ve just got to have a new model that’s going to make it easier for us to keep having the festival each year and not be so strapped for cash every time we do it.”

The festival has grown to attract some of the bigger name entertainers that come through Lawrence in a year. This year’s festival hosted a free downtown concert of Public Enemy, and events by Kris Kristofferson, comedian Maria Bamford and others.

Bishop said the loss of $60,000 of potential city grants was one of the main factors, which also resulted in some uncertain or scaled back support from sponsors. Last year, the festival received $75,500 of city funding, all coming from the city’s transient guest tax fund. Earlier this year, the city decided to cap those requests at $15,000 with the goal of distributing funds more evenly and encouraging events to become self-sustaining.

Bishop said she recognized that budgets are tight for the city and the state, and that they are understanding of the city’s new cap.

“The city has been so generous to us, and we understand that the state of Kansas is struggling across the board right now in terms of budgets,” Bishop said. “But that loss from the city, in addition to losses from other sponsors who are also having to tighten their budgets has just made it really, really hard to carry the festival off.”

However, the idea of the festival isn’t going away entirely for 2017. The Lawrence Arts Center, which puts on the festival, will still employ the two curators in charge of the event. In lieu of the weeklong festival, the arts center will be offering some ongoing programming that will be under the Free State Festival brand, Bishop said.

“So we’re in the process of obtaining funding to do all of that so we can keep engaging our audiences during this off year,” Bishop said, “and hopefully really cement the brand at the same time as we’re doing a lot of research, looking at other festival models.”

That programming will include a three-day indoor event in June that will feature art, films, a comedian and a small indoor concert at the arts center. There will also be film or comedy programming in January, February and March, Bishop said.

Bishop said that the arts center is going to use the next year to come up with a plan to make the Free State Festival sustainable. She said that will include looking for a presenting sponsor, growing the festival’s ticket sales and securing more private donations. Bishop said she hopes the festival will “come back strong” in 2018.

“We just want to make sure we are taking our time, so we get this festival on solid footing and are able to progress and not have it be a question every year of whether we can do the festival or not,” Bishop said.

The Free State Festival began as a small independent film festival in 2011, but has since expanded to include panels, concerts, stage performances and art installations. It’s estimated that the 2016 festival attracted approximately 12,000 audience members and 850 hotel room stays.

Bishop said the exact festival programming for 2017 has not been decided yet, but that information will be on the Free State Festival website once finalized.