Developing a New Festival Toolkit

tumblr_oejaptwcde1qzzokxo1_540I’ve just come back from CXC and I have only glowing reviews of it. It was such a breath of fresh air. To that effect, I’ve been thinking about the future of comics events in America. How we move into that future. I’m typing out loud, hoping for some conversation.

Festivals like Entreviñetas are the future. Period. If you’re not up to date on the incredible work that is being done in Colombia, check out Frank’s tour diary from 2 years ago. And then hop on over to their site.  It’s time that the rest of us caught up.

Why? Because as it stands, in it’s current, commodity focused culture, comics are facing a cultural choking point with respect to the role that comics making can play in broader cultural discussions. We need to give comics making and comics reading practices more breathing room. To grow. To continue expanding. We need to nurture interdisciplinary approaches to experiencing comics. We need our festivals to make this a guiding principle.

Comics making no longer needs to limited to being a collectible, genre oriented narrative art form. It can take its ascendant role as the 21st Century visual art form. It’s time that it be seen as a modality of communication with breadth and depth, that can survive in any kind of market driven cultural ecosystem. It’s time for our festivals to foster that.

Hear me out.

 Here’s the nuts and bolts of something that’s been taking form across the discussions that I’ve been having in Pittsburgh and last weekend in Columbus…

Festival Shop: I’ve been kicking around this idea with Frank Santoro of creating a show that completely does away with the flea market model. No more standing behind tables hawking wares.  Instead, you establish a festival shop.

So how do you run a festival shop? You get an experienced comics retailer to run the shop. You have them hire a trusted staff. You pay that staff. The shop gets a cut. 50/50. In a model like this it costs you no money to have your work available. Our current system is embarrassingly inefficient. It is an ineffective use of getting dozens of skilled comics makers and storytellers in one city for a week or weekend. With everyone behind tables, there’s cross pollination that just doesn’t happen.

Under this new kind of model, if you are a guest you sign up to be involved in city wide comics programming. Signings, gallery exhibitions, lectures, workshops. This is the kind of thing that you get Arts and Cultural councils involved in. You sign up because you want to be part of the programming.

With a model like this, you free up the artists and suddenly new horizons open up. Among those horizons are sources for financing. Imagine collaborating with a city’s municipal parks: guided bike tours where throughout the tour you make stops, learn about the city, while doing landscape drawings and comics strips of the experience… A series of readings at a book store. Gallery exhibitions. Movie screenings at an arthouse theater. There are so many venues that would be amenable to programming: libraries, universities, community centers, theaters, bookstores, parks… Most of these venues have programming budgets that could fund materials and labor for artists. It’s a path way towards equity.

Book Debut Hub: The fear of course is of course that comics makers won’t attend a festival that they are not tabling at. It’s too foreign a concept to many comics makers. They might balk at the idea of having to be involved with programming as opposed to hand selling their books. So, one idea proposed is to make the exhibition aspect of the fest to be geared towards book debuts. The festival becomes an event for press. In such an ecosystem, everyone in local and national press knows that if they want to interview artists, this is where they do it. Like a “Comics-Cannes”. CXC is doing this well, already in its second. While it’s true that SPX is where a lot of people shoot to debut books, that’s not the focus in the market place. For the most part it’s a free for all. If a festival handled this in a way that was across the board… that’d be interesting.

Start small and semi-annually

What if you’re afraid that one big annual event is unsustainable? What if comics don’t have enough cultural momentum in your city?  Well you don’t have a huge comics explosion once a year from the get go. You create a series of small events that invite a couple cartoonists to come together for some talks, workshops, interviews, and collaborative projects.

You don’t want to make an event like this break the bank or be a social stressor on a local comics scene. You want the growth of an event like this to be sustainable. Fundamentally, you want to foster a culture of comics readership, with a focus on the reading habits of an entire city.

How do you do this? You seasonal programming in clusters. do workshops in the public schools. Do workshops and lectures at the libraries and universities. Fold comics makers into the reading and lecture series in theaters. Keep them free.

Limited guests

Imagine this. You bring 4 special guests. A comics journalist, an art comics maker, a storyboard artist, a memoirist. They all have unique expertise. Not only in their craft but in the subject matter that they work with. Pair the journalist up with a panel of other journalists and have a discussion on geopolitcial instability in the middle east. Bring the art comics maker and have them do a performance with a dance troupe. Record a conversation between the memoirist and an archival libraries memoir specialist, get the storyboard artist to discuss their work with paleontologists. You organize community programming around those specific guests. You look at their strengths and their areas of expertise. You show your city that comics are a pathway to expertise.

Why limit the number? You want to foster a cultural conversation across your city that is not diluted by droves of artists. Anyone who is interested in comics in your city will experience the perspectives of those invited. Together. Rather than seeing a list of 80 exhibitors and only engaging with 7 of those artists an attendee will in some way or another experience all the invited guests. You suddenly have a city on the same page. They’ve heard the same talks. They’ve seen the same demonstrations. Those artists impacts ripple out through that local area with much greater intensity. This is effective.

Also, it is more cost effective. You can focus on certain artists and pair them up with institutions that wish to fund your activities. You get way more bang for your buck from your programming. Your programming funds your festival and it pays the artists an equitable wage.
Is it more challenging than charging admission and charging exhibitors + selling ad space? Yes, a little more challenging, but far more promising.

Of course, all this can and should be co-programmed with local artists. Your local artists will be the beating heart of this cultural project as time progresses. You are building a cultural institution that is fostering the arts, with a focus on comics and cartooning. This allows for an international and regional dialogue to develop organically among makers and readers tied to where you’re at.

For the record, I want to see what we can do here in Pittsburgh to this effect. We have the ToonSeum, Copacetic Comics, Phantom of the Attic Comics, the Comics Workbook Rowhouse Residency, the Pittsburgh Zine Fair, the Pittsburgh Comics Salon, The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, a half-dozen comics hungry universities, and a slew of independent book stores. We have an existing regional show, PIX. We can make something happen.

That’s on my end in Pittsburgh. What do you have where you live? What could you imagine coming together? What kind of programs would you develop if you could wrangle the necessary arts funding in your city? Don’t be shy to comment, this is a long overdue conversation. It can get messy. We’re just figuring stuff out. I especially want to hear young makers and organizers in conversation with the grizzled veterans.

Some of you are in the trenches already, I want to hear what you’re doing.

For the rest of our complete CXC coverage check out the special “round up” report HERE.

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2 thoughts on “Developing a New Festival Toolkit

  1. This reminds me of the Amadora Festival I went to in Portugal (just outside Lisbon). A “bookstore,” curated art shows, talks… It felt like I could actually SEE and READ things rather than that I was shopping.

    1. Yes! It’s like going to a museum bookstore or stopping in at the library. I don’t feel obligated to buy, instead I whip out my notebook and take notes from a wild number of books. By the end of the day I leave having purchased something here or there, but there is never a feeling that I’m overstaying my welcome.

      As we currently exhibit, there’s a very awkward power dynamic of vendor and attendee.

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