If you are a devotee of the arts who has ever wondered how the sausage of your favorite festivals, seasons and programs gets made, the opening salvo of the 2018 Witching Hour festival shed a little light on the subject. The panel discussion, facilitated by Coffee with Dan conversationalist Dan Boscaljon, was the perfect kick-off to Witching Hour’s weekend of examination of the unknown, the creative process and new work (presented by the Englert Theatre and Little Village).
It was livestreamed on Channel 20, as were all other Witching Hour events at the Iowa City Public Library, and will be available on the library’s website soon.
The panel, one of the top things I was excited for on the bill, featured Wally Chappell, former executive director of Hancher; managing director of Tennessee’s Big Ears Festival, Carissa Stolting; and Simeon Talley, founder of Iowa City’s Flyover and Middle of Nowhere festivals.
It set the stage perfectly for Witching Hour, a festival that asks, “Why?” more often than it presents answers. The conversation was a microcosm of Witching Hour conceptual touchstones.
Boscaljon began by speaking with each panelist individually, and the line of questioning frequently came back to community. The ways in which a curator can both serve and build community through their choices are clear, and that responsibility was not lost on any of the panelists.
“That’s to me where the heartbeat of the community is,” said Chappell. “In the box office.”
Stolting spoke to the power of place in building a festival, and the way that the relatively isolated city of Knoxville, Tennessee, fosters that sense of community.
“A real family starts to feel like it’s being built over the course of the festival weekend,” she said, drawing good-natured ribbing from the audience for referring to Knoxville — approximately 2.5-times the size of Iowa City — as small.
The conversation with Talley, however, really began to crack open what curation can mean to a community. He spoke of the value and risks of representation. In the wake of his most recent Flyover Fest, for example, which programmed primarily people of color, he had white community members approach him to express feeling of alienation, a story which drew an audible reaction of discomfort from the audience.
Managing feedback is an ongoing concern for curators, one that Talley feels especially keenly, as his festivals are so young.
“Some of the feedback you get, they just don’t get what you’re trying to do, or this just isn’t for them,” Talley said, responding to questions of how to know which feedback is valuable and which is just noise. Determining that is as simple as it is difficult: “Have conversations, hear people out and try to navigate it,” he said.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to always give all people what they want, of course. But Talley had high praise for the Iowa City community, noting that venues such as Hancher and the Englert, along with festivals such as Mission Creek, have cultivated a constituency of arts supporters in town who have learned to take risks and be patrons even to art that they don’t understand.
Chappell wrapped up the session, after a brief audience Q&A, with a little etymology: Curator, he said, derives from curare, Latin for “to take care of.” It’s the same root as cure and curate (in the religious sense). It evokes, he said, “a sense of caring that we cannot afford to lose.”
This panel was, again, the perfect start to a delightfully curated Witching Hour festival: a little bit academic, a little bit exploratory, a little bit navel-gazey — and a whole lot of fun. A sense of care was evidenced at every turn during the weekend, and community was foregrounded in every choice.