Black Arts Festival organizers hope for larger crowds as temps drop

Organizers of this year’s Black Arts Festival are battling heat, a decline in funding and what they think are the effects of a stagnant economy but are keeping an upbeat tone about one of the city’s oldest community events.

On Saturday, the first day of the three-day event that is in its 45th year, high humidity and temperatures nearing 100 degrees midafternoon were probably affecting turnout at the festival at McAdams Park near 13th and Interstate 135.

Charles Coleman, a vice president of the festival and volunteer since 1989, said the heat likely affected participation at the event’s 11 a.m. parade as well as its afternoon activities, though he expected more festival-goers to turn out Saturday evening.

“Our parade, considering the heat, wasn’t as full as normal,” Coleman said. “There was all kinds of factors this year.”

Still, the parade, which kicks off the festival, had enough participants that it stretched more than two miles, said Dana McPherson, the festival’s president.

And on midafternoon Saturday, the festival had about 50 vendors and exhibitors and dozens of festival-goers, including Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams, who said she has been attending the festival for years.

“It seems hotter than usual,” said Williams, whose council district includes McAdams.

She said the festival is a time for the city’s black community to reach out to the rest of Wichita.

“It’s just a good gathering time,” Williams said. “It’s the art. It’s the culture. And it’s open to everyone.”

Coleman and Carl Stovall, the festival’s secretary and treasurer and a volunteer for 12 years, said it’s been a difficult past few years for the festival because some sources of funding – including from the Kansas Arts Commission after Gov. Sam Brownback eliminated its state funding in 2011 – have dried up “with the economic decline.”

“The scope of our funding is directly tied to our economy,” Stovall said.

“This year, even though it’s scaled back, we’re just working off donations, and we have a vast number of supporters” that are acting as volunteers or providing in-kind services, Coleman added.

He said a decrease in funding means the festival can’t afford to bring in “brand name” musical acts that it has in previous years. Instead, Coleman said, the festival is relying more heavily on local performers and bands. Music is a key feature of the festival.

Coleman said money earned this year from the sale of the festival’s $3 admission buttons will determine whether they can resume bringing in the larger musical acts next year. “Our big financial support (now) is the button,” he said.

Coleman and Stovall said they are determined to see the festival continue. Stovall said he and other officers are mentoring youths now to eventually take over organizing it. Without those youth leaders stepping up, the festival “will be a piece of Wichita history that dies out,” Stovall said.

Coleman said he has a vision for the festival to one day be on par with another well-known local festival: “We want to be just as large as the (Wichita) River Festival. We can be as big as the (River) Festival.”