It’s 13 days before the 2014 Westobou Festival kicks off and festival Director Kristi Jilson is in her office reviewing the fifth version of the festival program.
“It’s definitely crunch time,” she says with an anxious laugh.
“They were looking for an executive director, but because of my lack of fundraising experience, they brought me in as festival director with the opportunity to be promoted to executive director,” Jilson says.
What she lacked in fundraising experience she more than made up for in event experience. After graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) with a degree in jewelry and a minor in fibers, Jilson opened a gallery with a few of her classmates, then started working for the college as a traveling admissions representative. Soon, she was overseeing all of SCAD’s admissions enrollment events.
Now, she’s in Augusta trying to copyedit her first Westobou program. Thirteen days before the festival starts.
“A job like this is so cool,” she says. “It’s different from Savannah, but the energy around the potential for growth here in Augusta has really kept me going. This is the best gig I could have right now.”
So what exactly is Westobou?
People have been pondering that question since the inaugural festival in 2008, and it’s always been difficult to explain, in part because it’s gone through so many changes. But after seven years, it really doesn’t matter what it is anymore, at least not to the general public, because even if they’re a little foggy on the specifics, it’s been around long enough for everyone to know that it’s basically an arts festival.
Though Jilson wasn’t here for all the other Westobous, she has heard enough to understand why people might be a little confused. After all, she’s still getting calls from people who think they’re part of Arts in the Heart.
“A part of me wonders if someone doesn’t get it because they saw it initially and because it’s had so many transitional years,” she says, though in almost the same breath she admits there could still be some changes on the horizon.
Ultimately, Westobou’s goal has always been to build the cultural community and social community of Augusta while also helping to strengthen the local economy. Originally, it started big — splashy, gaudy big — with hundreds of events spread over 10 days. Since that auspicious beginning, it’s eventually consolidated all that artistic randomness into five days focused on five genres, something that has sometimes seemed a bit unimaginative no matter how inspiring some of the individual events may have been.
By May of 2011, three years into the initial five years of the funding agreement, the festival reinvented itself with a new look, a new date that separated itself from Arts in the Heart and a trimmed down staff. Executive Director Kathi Dimmock and Special Events Assistant Virginia Atkins lost their jobs in what then-board chairman Cameron Nixon called a strategic reallocation meant to get more bang out of the festival’s buck.
Every year the board would present a budget to the trustees who managed the Porter Fleming Foundation’s money, and the trustees would come back in March and let them know how much they were able to fund. According to Dimmock, that year they were not able to fund the amount that it was going to take to continue at the budget level the festival was operating at, so they eliminated the two positions and put artistic coordinator Molly McDowell and entertainment writer Steven Uhles in charge.
The idea at the time was to make Westobou a destination festival rather than the well-funded local arts festival it had become, and that was achieved by bringing in fewer acts with larger draws, which that year included things like “This American Life”’s Ira Glass, country music singer Rosanne Cash, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and the dance company Momix.
It was still a 10-day festival, but it had slimmed down to 50 events from 212 the year before, and while in the past the festival would have advertised its pillar event, like 2010’s Al Green concert, and left each sponsor organization to plug its own event, McDowell decided to use the advertising money to advertise other specific events as well as the festival as a whole.
“We thought that if we advertized it and tried to sell the festival as a cohesive event, people might get it better,” she told the Metro Spirit in 2011.
By 2012, the festival moved McDowell to executive director and shortened it to a five-day festival built around one of the five spotlight categories — visual arts, words, film, music and dance.
Maybe more significant was the elimination of the complicated grant process. The Porter Fleming Foundation, which basically provides the funding that is administered by the trustees of the Academy of Richmond County, decided to give the programming money directly to the festival, which is basically how things are run now.
Rather than individual arts organizations trying to walk a tightrope between keeping their core audience happy while appealing a broader, festival-going public, the decision-making process — and the money — was consolidated.
“I think organizations typically start small and then start dreaming bigger and bigger,” Jilson says. “I think we dreamed big right off the bat and it was great, but I think we found out how difficult it would be to sustain that with the foundation we had. So then, I think, the idea was to be a little more restrained and really focus on what we’re doing, and as we build a stronger and stronger foundation, we can start to expand again.”
But all that is complicated water under the bridge and has nothing to do with the excitement surrounding this year’s festival, which starts on Wednesday, October 1, and runs through Sunday, October 5.
Part of the festival’s mission is to bring the community together with thought-provoking and engaging experiences, and Jilson and the programming committee have worked hard to ensure that each event somehow achieves those standards. In the case of Wednesday’s appearance by director Peter Bogdanovich at GRU’s Maxwell Theatre, it was less to do with Jilson and more to do with committee member and GRU film professor Matthew Buzzell, who brought up the idea and then used his connections to make sure it came together.
Thursday’s dance pillar will be the Complexions contemporary ballet company, which appeared at the first Westobou Festival. Performing a completely different program, their latest piece incorporates a Stevie Wonder song, which ties in nicely with singer Allen Stone, who will perform with Amos Lee, Patrick Davis, Priscilla Ahn and the Ramblin’ Fevers at the Old Richmond Academy Parade Grounds on Friday night.
“Allen Stone’s main inspiration is Stevie Wonder, so I think it’s sort of a cool connection,” Jilson says. “We’ve been finding these tiny little cool connections with everything that we’re offering, so it’s all sort of coming together.”
According to Jilson, ticket sales for the music event are double what they sold last year for Johnnyswim, which illustrates one of the challenges of putting on an entertainment festival — gambling on less expensive but sometimes unproven entertainers that might not always resonate with your audience.
“You want to catch someone who’s on the rise, and you want to be the one who has them at their peak because you want to get them before their fee doubles,” Jilson says. “You need somebody that’s a big enough name so people have actually heard of them, but they can’t be too big because then you’re going to price yourself out of the running. It’s finding that middle ground where the magic happens.”
Which brings us to singer Amos Lee, who Jilson says is something of an enigma.
“Some people have gone, ‘Wow — Amos Lee in Augusta,’ and some people have gone, ‘Wow — he’s still around?’” she says. “What’s great is we’re getting college students and then I’m getting a 60-year-old woman coming in here who can’t wait to get tickets.”
Putting the outdoor concert the night before the Color Run, which occurs in partnership with the Augusta Sports Council, was a decision geared toward giving Color Run participants something to do after they pick up their race packets. Then on Saturday afternoon after the Color Run comes what might be the most difficult to describe few hours of the festival, starting with improv actor and comedian Charlie Todd, who will first perform and then invite the crowd to join him in his MP3 Experiment, a free event where people download the same MP3 file onto their mobile device and then perform along with the rest of the crowd.
“There’s an element of you participating, but you don’t know what you’re going to do, so there’s an element of surprise, too, and then there’s this idea of a flash mob,” Jilson says. “There’s also this whole element of surprise for the rest of the community who doesn’t know this is going to happen.”
All of that fun runs right into a screening of “The Goonies.”
While these events are free, as are several others, the festival has made an effort to keep tickets at $5 for students and active-duty military.
“We wanted to bring in those members of the community that are a little further outside of Augusta, who maybe aren’t part of the downtown scene on a daily basis,” she says. “How do we bring more people in and expose them to Westobou? We get such great support from GRU, so why don’t we offer a $5 ticket?”
That marketing strategy — bringing in people who might not normally feel like an arts festival is for them — follows through to their advertising strategy as well.
“We just put up seven billboards this month all over town,” Jilson says. “We tried to make sure there was one near Fort Gordon to communicate that we were offering the $5 military ticket to Amos Lee and the other events, and we tried to put some up near areas where there was a concentration of student housing to communicate the $5 student tickets.”
Though Jilson has never experienced the festival she’s now leading, she’s heard enough about past events to know there’s always one that sort of takes people by surprise, and this year she thinks that’s going to be storyteller and spoken word artist Minton Sparks, who will perform Sunday night at Enterprise Mill.
“If you’re thinking spoken word isn’t really your thing, you might be surprised,” she says. “She does spoken word in front of a live band, but she doesn’t sing. For me, my jaw has dropped to the ground watching her performances.”
Though Jilson doesn’t know what’s going to happen after this year’s festival is debriefed, she does know that the festival, two years beyond its original five year guaranteed run, has at least another couple of years left in it.
“Before I arrived, the executive board approached the trustees and said that they wanted to bring in someone from outside the Augusta community, but to do that they needed to give them a better commitment than a year,” she says. “So the trustees committed to three years of funding at the same level as they originally started. So we have this year and two more years before we go back to them.”
She pauses, looks down at the program guide, and smiles.
“My feeling is that we’re going to blow them out of the water in the next couple of years and they’re not going to have any reason to back out,” she says. “They’re going to want to continue to be a part of this.”