Aspen City Council to Wheeler director: reduce festival money losses
June 21, 2011
ASPEN – The Aspen City Council on Monday approved a 5.5 percent increase for Wheeler Opera House festival production expenses, although some council members were reluctant to go along with Executive Director Gram Slaton’s request because of the large losses associated with the events.
The city hosts three festivals at the city-owned Wheeler. Two were held in March: The Aspen Laff Festival and the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival. A third event, MountainSummit: Mountainfilm in Aspen, is planned for Aug. 25-28.
All three festivals are subsidized by the city. The Aspen Laff Festival, a new event that replaced the Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival, lost $39,725 this year. The songwriters’ festival, which is in its second year, lost $48,463. A financial report on the film festival will be sent to the council in September.
Councilman Derek Johnson voiced concern over Slaton’s plan to spend more money on festival production while reducing the number of “one-offs” – shows that only run a few hours on a single night. He also mentioned the desire to eliminate the large subsidies for Wheeler events, and asked Slaton to come back with more information that shows the city’s return on its investment – such as the economic impact on the community – into Wheeler productions.
“I’d like to get to a zero subsidy,” Johnson said.
“I’ll be honest with you – you’ll never get a zero subsidy,” Slaton said.
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In the end, Johnson, Adam Frisch and Steve Skadron gave their support to Slaton’s request during the Monday work session, and pledged to add the Wheeler subsidy issue to the agenda of a late-July retreat. Councilman Torre dissented, and cautioned his fellow councilmen about making decisions without having enough information on which to base the decisions. Mayor Mick Ireland is on vacation and did not attend the meeting.
“In the last couple of months, I’ve seen this a couple of times, where we’re willing to go forward on faith, but I don’t think we’re setting clear goals and expectations,” Torre said. “Just remember, our job is not always to say yes. We’re such facilitators; we look for ways to make things happen.”
Earlier in the meeting, Torre told Slaton that he wanted to see a plan for growing the festivals, especially the songwriters’ event. Referring to the Mining for Ideas program, which allocates money to fledgling events, he said city-sponsored festivals should have a goal of attracting visitors to Aspen – an economic benefit that can be measured. He also said that with each year, the events should achieve greater national exposure.
Memorandums from Slaton to the council explain that despite the losses and various setbacks, the festivals are achieving artistic success. He also says that the subsidies should decline as the festivals age and become better known.
The Aspen Laff Festival replaced the Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival, which followed the 2007 demise of the HBO-U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. The Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival was a joint production of the city and San Francisco-based Rooftop Comedy, a web-based entertainment service.
The city discontinued its relationship with Rooftop Comedy, “as there were found to be conflicting interests in the preferred time period for the event, in creative direction, and in artist selection and festival construction,” an April memo from Slaton states.
The last Rooftop Festival, in 2010, lost $38,233. Slaton wrote that the slight increase in the 2011 comedy festival’s loss ($39,725) could be attributed to moving the festival into the winter ski season, which meant higher prices for airfares and hotel bookings. Second, “achieving better talent meant a doubling of artist fees.” He said the festival should see significant improvement in attendance and revenue next year.
The songwriters’ festival lost less money this year than it did last year, $48,463, compared with $86,147 in 2010. Slaton wrote this year’s festival contained many highlights, including a sold-out house for Keb Mo and special guest Sam Bush.
Short pieces from this year’s event will be broadcast this summer on the new Velocity network, he wrote, and the festival has attracted the interest of the Americana Music Association, with possible plans to bring it under the umbrella of the AMA along with other nationally prominent festivals. He also mentioned the possibility of an international corporate sponsor in the near future.
MountainSummit, started in August 2009, experienced an 84 percent increase in attendance and a 38 percent increase in revenue between its first year and the 2010 event. It lost $53,706 in 2009 and $28,885 last year.