Mission Creek Festival organizers on the cancellation — and future — of their 2020 fest

Jenny Lewis performs on the Englert stage for Mission Creek Festival 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

On Thursday, March 12, just three days before Little Village issue 281 was due to go to print, Iowa City’s Mission Creek Festival made the announcement that it wouldn’t be holding its much-anticipated April 1-4 fest. It was six days after the cancellation of Austin’s SXSW festival had shaken the film and music worlds, the first clue that this not-then-pandemic that originated in China was going to have a significant impact on the arts here in the United States.

The mid-March issue of Little Village normally focuses on all things Mission Creek. Our all-hands-on-deck efforts at LVHQ to rethink and reorganize this magazine felt herculean from the inside, but we’re well aware that they are only a fraction of the efforts going on the city, state, national and global level to try and craft a new normal for the arts in a time of social distancing.

Rather than canceling completely, Mission Creek decided on a pseudo-postponement. It won’t be possible to wrangle all of the same talent scheduled for the expansive music, literature, film and art fest, but organizers are doing their best to bring as many folks together as possible on a yet-to-be-determined date later this year, for an event that may not match the original, but will surely capture the same passion and fascination that the community is used to reveling in.

“We’re postponing as much of the festival as possible, and working with individual artists to identify their availability,” said Marketing Director John Schickedanz in an email. “When the community faces a crisis, it’s the arts that remind us of our humanity and allow an escape from the everyday. We want to make sure that we continue to grow the arts in our community to allow people that release. We also understand that canceling the festival would affect the downtown economy and artists. We’ve considered patrons, artists and the downtown community and feel that our current plan is the best for everyone.”
Schickendanz said that the festival should know more about what the new vision will look like in the next few weeks.

Mission Creek Festival wasn’t the first event in the Iowa City area to shutter, but it’s possibly the most significant. Now in its 15th year, the festival is a favorite for patrons and artists both in town and throughout the region, providing a chance to spend the early days of spring wandering around downtown Iowa City to the fest’s scattered venues. And other arts presenters in the area may take their cues from the decisions of an event this big.

“These are effects that are being felt across the board, certainly in the states, and in our small community here,” said Andre Perry, Mission Creek Festival founder and executive director of the Englert Theatre, which presents the festival. “I think when you see a music festival go down … those things are a little more in the public eye. People might see those first. There was probably a big shock when South by Southwest got canceled, to be followed by Coachella. It’s just so public.”

“People are really concerned and nervous about the current situation,” Schickedanz wrote. “Community support for the decision has been overwhelming. We understand that this is obviously an inconvenience for patrons who have purchased tickets so it’s humbling to see such a positive response.”

If the cancellation of Mission Creek, and the dominoes that fell after (Riverside Theatre, Iowa City Community Theatre, Public Space One and the Iowa City Public Library are among the other orgs that have canceled events since) can help the public comprehend the seriousness of what the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic on March 11, then it will have served a vital role.

“Over the course of the week there was a deeper understanding of what communities, festivals, artists needed to do to ensure a better situation for communities across our country,” Perry said. “Everyone was a little bit shell-shocked this week, but at the same time the decisions I don’t think were difficult.”

Perry has had to reconsider events of his own as he continues to promote his recent book, Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now.

There’s also the challenge of finding ways to support the other professionals associated with presenting a festival: artists, managers, agents, vendors. “They’re all just miniature-to-moderate economies of their own,” he said.

The real trick, though, “was more the logistics of figuring out, ‘What do we do from here?’, to ensure we’re bringing amazing experiences to our communities and perhaps at a time when we need, even more than we needed before, might need positive interactions with each other.”

“We do know that we don’t know what’s going to happen going forward,” Perry continued, “but we can hope that there’s a time when the situation dies down a little bit in terms of being dangerous, and it’s not a public health crisis anymore. When that time comes, we’re really going to think hard about how can we celebrate that.”

“I have been in conversation with staff members at other arts organizations around town … We’re in ongoing conversations about who we are and how we can best deliver our mission together,” Perry said of the glimmer of hope that he sees in these challenges. “I think the COVID-19 situation has accelerated how we think about our partnership and how we might stand in solidarity to better support the place that we live in. We’ve had some really intense conversations … about not only, what do each of our individual organizations need to do to move forward, but, how do we move forward together. And I think that’s good — for us, and for the cultural community in downtown Iowa City.”

In the meantime, there are numerous, crucial ways to support Mission Creek Festival and other artists and organizations throughout the area. Mission Creek has suspended sales of their event merchandise (which is too bad, because I still really want one of those T-shirts!), but their website welcomes donations through the Friends of the Englert program.

More generally, said Schickedanz, “Nonprofit arts orgs often survive on meager margins. Consider the true cost of a show you really enjoy and donate a few extra dollars to the venue. If you’re able, set up recurring donations so that arts organizations can count on your support. … Talk to your friends about art, buy merch, consider applying the cost of tickets to canceled shows to donations and when things are back to normal, support your local arts orgs by coming out in force.”

Genevieve Trainor washes her hands for 20 seconds by singing the intro to They Might Be Giants’ Flood. Which is kind of ironic considering the last major challenge to the arts communities in eastern Iowa. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 281.

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