On a blue-skied Sunday afternoon, some 40 people sprawl on the lawn of pastoral Edgerton Park, located in the affluent area sandwiched between New Haven and Hamden. They have congregated to listen to a band of jovial Caucasian men and women, mostly middle-aged, who strum on guitars and serenely sing acoustic renditions of folk music classics like “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” Though the attendees of this afternoon’s event of the New Haven Folk Music Festival include the likes of an elderly Hasidic Jew and an Asian family, the audience is still overwhelmingly white — there is not a single black audience member.
That is a glaring absence for a festival named after a city with a population that, according to the 2000 United States Census, is over 35 percent black. New Haven may bill itself as a city of festivals, but witnessing the disproportionately white attendance at the Folk Festival makes one question whether festivals in New Haven actually serve the city’s demographic. But despite the supposed smorgasbord of cultural options that Elm City residents have at their disposal — from Film Fest New Haven to the Market New Haven free concert series — festival planners have had difficulty ensuring that their events attract a full cross-section of the community.
Erin Johnson ’08, who has lived in New Haven for six years, said she has made it a point to attend cultural events organized in the city, especially the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, an 18-day festival in June. On one hand, she said she believes that some of the festival’s events, such as a performance by Ladysmith Black Mambazo attract a cross-section of New Haven residents. But she wonders if the festival as a whole is well-suited to the needs of the entire community.
“For a festival that’s supposed to be for everyone, maybe it really isn’t,” Johnson said.
Appealing to a broad spectrum of people is not easy. While many events at New Haven festivals are free of charge, a good number require paid admission, and pricing can often deter those who might otherwise be interested in attending. For example, if it weren’t for her mother’s willingness to purchase tickets for her, Johnson said, she would likely avoid paid events at Arts & Ideas.
But festival organizers said there are substantially more free events than paid ones. Mary Lou Aleskie, executive director of Arts & Ideas, estimated that at least 80 percent of the festival requires no admission fee. She also said the costs of tickets rarely tops more than $35 to $40. Festival organizers try to subsidize the costs to audiences as much as possible, she said, but holding events in certain venues — especially indoor locations — leads to higher overhead expenses.
Still, that is not to say that festival planning isn’t about the Benjamins at all. Both Lamb and Aleskie admitted that festivals in New Haven serve as economic catalysts meant to bring people into the city to spend money at restaurants, hotels and other businesses. Johnson said a desire to target the more affluent and suburban audiences that possess more disposable income are plainly clear, even at free events.
Beyond pricing, a festival’s lineup is crucial to the types of audiences that the festival reaches. James van Pelt DIV ’03, one of the New Haven Folk Festival’s planners, said the festival presents a specific style of folk music, one that limits the types of audience member it will attract.
“There’s a lot of diversity in our audience in terms of age and income level, but we don’t get very many African Americans,” van Pelt said. “What we consider folk music is really white folk music.”
While race is not the only benchmark by which attendance diversity is measured — Ideat Village, a “fringe” arts and music festival that recently celebrated its fourth year is very popular — mainstream festival organizers insist diversity is an ideal they have long strived for.
“We are multidisciplinary, and we try to include as many genres as possible,” Aleskie said of Arts & Ideas. “It’s multicultural — there’s a lot of countries and cultures represented.”
Even the organizers of the Folk Festival, despite being tied to the idea of “white folk music,” hope to convey that incorporating as many elements of the community as possible is a goal they have always had in mind.
“For the first number of years, we made sure that one of our three headliners was African American, and we’ve carried [the diversity] on in that one of the groups was lesbian,” van Pelt said. “At least we’re sending some sort of message about the importance of [diversity]. We don’t say it that way, but there it is.”
Geography, too, can factor into how accessible an event is to the city. Arts & Ideas, the New Haven Jazz Festival and other events are situated in downtown New Haven, with many events taking place on the New Haven Green. Abiding by the precedent of past years, the Folk Festival continues to be staged at Edgerton Park, literally on the outskirts of New Haven.
Nonetheless, van Pelt argues that no matter how hard you try, community outreach is tied to issues much deeper than relocating a festival.
“There are black people two blocks away [from Edgerton Park] that don’t know where this park is because this city is so rigidly divided by class and race,” he said.