Old Town is playing host to the arts in September. What began as an idea to help bring tourists back to Alexandria turned into controversy, then back to near agreement.
Billed as Alexandria Festival of the Arts, the city will welcome artists Sept. 13-14, hoping to draw 20,000 spectators and potential art buyers, and pumping a much-needed $3.5 million into the local economy.
After unanimous approval by City Council, the juried art festival will see several blocks of King Street in Old Town cordoned off for those two days.
As the brainchild of the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association (ACVA), the impetus behind this event was to revitalize both tourism and business — primarily retail, hotel and restaurant. That was the message at ACVA's FunSide Forum last week.
According to ACVA's CEO, Jo Anne Mitchell, "ACVA has one mission, and that is to promote tourism. We bring them in. It's up to you to get them into your shops," she told the standing-room-only audience at the Marriott Residence Inn on Duke Street.
Serving as moderator, Mike Anderson kicked off the panel discussion by announcing, "The purpose of this panel is to discuss how this event can benefit the city. With the war, business is down. We need this."
SPEAKING TO THE subject, "Turning 20,000 Visitors Into Customers," the six local panelists, in addition to Mitchell, consisted of Ann Dorman, executive director, First Night Alexandria; Joe Egerton, owner, Arts Afire Glass Gallery; Susan Grandgeorge, owner, Joe Theismann's Restaurant; Charlotte Hall, vice president, Potomac Riverboat Company; Judy McVay, Alexandria resident and past president, Old Town Civic Association; and Adam Winer, owner, ArtCraft Collection.
Introducing the subject and explaining the overall concept was Howard Alan, head of Howard Alan Events Ltd., producer of the festival. With shows in 44 cities throughout the nation, his promotional literature states, "Our artists come from all over the United States and abroad, to create a collection of over $15 million of art on display."
In the case of Alexandria, that display will involve approximately 200 artists with booths stretched from St. Asaph to Union streets. They will line the north and south sides of King Street from St. Asaph to Fairfax streets and be in the roadway from Fairfax to Union streets.
"We bring a very upscale vendor to our events. It's not a flea market or a circus. It's a very upscale show," Alan stressed. "People coming to our shows spend, on average, $30 each on non-show items. So, as long as its coming, profit from it."
ALAN MAKES HIS MONEY from several sources, according to Mitchell. "He gets paid from fees charged the artists and from securing a national sponsor, like Cadillac or Lexus, that benefits from the exposure to an upscale audience," she explained.
"There is no cost to ACVA or the city," Mitchell assured. "He covers all the costs including security."
Artists pay a $15 application processing fee plus a $195 to $300 participation fee. Alan's statistics claim a 20- to 25-percent increase in local retail businesses, 25-percent increase for restaurants, and 40-percent increase for hotels. His figures also indicate attendance increases as a show matures from an initial 20,000 to a possible 100,000.
He admitted, "Obviously it's a hindrance to parking, and there's the inconvenience of street closures. But it's great for local commerce. This is your opportunity to promote your local businesses."
The benefit to the hotels was evidenced by a letter of endorsement from 21 members of the Alexandria Hotel Association addressed to City Council and Mayor Kerry Donley. In his letter, Bryan Thompson, president of the association, stated, "We see the festival as an opportunity that will benefit many types of Alexandria businesses."
TO STRENGTHEN THAT perception, ACVA solicited comments from other cities that host festivals produced by Alan. In one such endorsement, Sandi Stamp, executive director, Skokie (Ill.) Chamber of Commerce, wrote, "Our local merchants and restaurants also receive the benefit of our weekend event, as people fill the hotels to make their visit to our area an outing."
Alan promised to leave the area cleaner than he found it. "I have a professional cleanup crew that travels with me. I have found they can do the job better than the locals. They know how to clean up after a show."
Winer indicated, "We feel this will bring us new customers we haven't had before. I feel we can work through the objections. It's only one weekend out of the whole year."
McVay announced that "Old Town Civic Association supports this."
She also expressed the opinion, "This should complement Arts on the Avenue."
David Fromm, speaking for Arts on the Avenue, disagreed.
"We did express our concerns about this event and haven't been totally supportive. We feel you will be drawing money away from us," he told Alan.
Alan insisted, "We are not working against each other but with each other. It will not have a negative effect but a positive one." Mitchell noted, "We are going to market this as Fall for the Arts." She expressed the opinion that such a strategy would benefit everyone.
OTCA'S SUPPORT, as expressed in its newsletter, was somewhat couched. It stated, "OTCA is supporting the concept of an outdoor art festival, and we will try to ensure that parking for the artists' vehicles and for visitors is well-planned, that rest rooms are available without bringing in portable facilities, that litter is controlled, and there is minimal impact on nearby residents."
Hall warned, "We have had a series of losses since 9/11. We need the business now. If we're not careful, we are going to lose some businesses before September."
She added, "As a boat operator, who also operates water taxis between Georgetown and Old Town, I want to be part of the transportation planning. This is an opportunity for all of us. When is the last time we had a two-day class act for free?"
When asked how many of the visitors would be from out of the immediate area, Alan answered, "That depends on how well it is promoted outside the region. I would like to see a 60/40 split with 60-percent locals and 40-percent visitors.
"My job is to get national publicity — travel magazines, airline magazines, etc. I will not promote your individual businesses."
Mitchell explained that ACVA is planning a broad-based promotion campaign. "There is an agreement with Metro and DASH About to promote this. We have advertising planned around an overall public relations program. We are developing parking information to encourage parking outside the festival area. It will be played up at the visitors' center and on Web sites," she said.
ANOTHER GROUP that has expressed concerns about the event is the Torpedo Factory Arts Center. In a letter to ACVA in February, Joan Menard, president, Torpedo Factory Artists Association, stated, "I am not against having an art festival; I am against having a private-ownership organization from out of state brought into Alexandria to sponsor the event.
"If the city does like the idea of hosting a high-quality Fine Art Festival, they should do as other cities have done and have a local nonprofit group host the festival." She then listed concerns for the City and the Torpedo Factory Art Center.
ACVA's answer stated in part, "The concept of an art festival enhances our reputation as a tourism and arts destination and produces revenue for our businesses and the city. ACVA has chosen to work with Howard Alan Events Ltd. because the firm has a proven record for organizing successful art shows that are attended by thousands of people in affluent destinations similar to Alexandria."
In a letter dated March 11 addressed to Art Forum Members, ACVA stated, "We have been surprised by the negative reaction of some members of the art community. We want to work with you toward the same goal of benefiting our city and its reputation for art and culture."
One of the primary artistic criticisms raised by Menard in her letter was the methodology of choosing the jurors for the arts festival.
"It is claimed that this show is "juried." Juried by whom? The best art festivals bring in professional art jurors," she stated.
When questioned on this point at the Forum, Alan said, "We do not release the names of our jurors because they change regularly with all our shows. We also change our work constantly to remain fresh."
He did offer to name the jurors privately after the Forum.
Menard promised during the Forum, "We are going to begin putting our forces together to find ways we can promote our artists."
Alexandria businesses can log on to www.acvamembers.com for ideas on how to promote their businesses for the upcoming arts festival in September.