Tweaking Art and Soul

Organizers broaden their approach to ramp up public interest in downtown’s arts festival.


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Dancing at Art + Soul.

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When downtown Oakland’s first Art + Soul festival debuted in the summer of 2001, it had one sponsor, one stage, and one small crowd. Yet the weekend festival steadily grew each year after. By its 10th anniversary, Art + Soul encompassed 10 city blocks around Frank H. Ogawa Plaza and City Center, and MC Hammer, En Vogue, and CAKE headlined in honor of the special occasion. More than 25,000 people came—Art + Soul’s largest crowd.

The next year, however, attendance dropped by nearly 10,000 people. It picked up slightly in 2012 but fell off again, to 14,000 people, in 2013. The city’s Life Enrichment Committee took notice and asked Samee Roberts, the executive producer of Art + Soul and Oakland’s director of marketing, to prepare a comprehensive five-year analysis of the festival with the help of the city’s Cultural Arts and Marketing Division.

That report drew on data collected by an objective outside group during its biannual survey of Art + Soul’s patrons, which said more than 90 percent of those surveyed were completely satisfied with their experience. The report also said the festival has been effective in accomplishing its original goals of strengthening local cultural identity and sense of community, attracting visitors, making downtown safer, and fueling economic development. Nonetheless, it also acknowledged that a large number of people appeared to have lost interest in Art + Soul, prompting organizers to be a bit preoccupied about attracting new and returning patrons for 2014.

This year’s weekend festival takes over downtown from noon to 6 p.m. Aug. 2 and 3 and, for $10 ($7 for youth and seniors), includes 40 acts on four stages, with the musical lineup as varied as bluesman Tommy Castro, the homegrown gospel giants of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, and the salsa superheroes from the Pacific Mambo Orchestra, as well as healthy doses of music, art, dancing, wares, food, and family activities. In addition, there are new elements organizers think will amp up the event.

“We’re broadening the scope of our programming to broaden our audience,” Roberts said. “Also to keep Art + Soul fresh and new and exciting, so people will come back year after year.”

New for 2014 is the Oaktown Throwdown BBQ Competition on Saturday, a Kansas City Barbeque Society tournament with professional and amateur components and cash prizes of up to $10,000. The audience also can join in, for a fee, by tasting the professionals’ submissions and then voting for their favorites in the People’s Choice competition. With six weeks to go, Roberts wrote in an email that the barbecue competition had sold out.

In addition to the pitmaster contest this year, there’s the Turf & All Styles Dance Battle on Saturday. At the 2012 Art + Soul festival, YAKFilms, a local film company that chronicles the global urban dance movement, organized a street-dancing competition called Yak to the Bay that made the crowd go crazy—and was such a hit that organizers have brought it back this year, the first step in making the turf-dancing competition an annual tradition.

Also on Saturday afternoon, the Oakland-based aerial dance company Bandaloop will scale the face of City Hall to perform elaborately choreographed vertical dances, and on Sunday Art + Soul host its first car show, the Hot Rod & Vintage Car Show.

Will that be enough? It’s hard to say. Organizers think a crowd in the 15,000 range is perfectly respectable, especially given festival competition these days. But Art + Soul could be overlooking an easy mark—art lovers.

The festival’s focus admittedly has been on Oakland’s rich music and dance history—every year, the Blues Showcase honors the fact that Oakland was the birthplace of the West Coast Blues scene; the Gospel Stage salutes it as the original home of gospel music in the Bay Area; and the World Dance stage commemorates the diversity of dance styles that have been created and cultivated in Oakland.

And while the Burning Man–style industrial art pieces that have appeared the last two years and the festival’s recurring community mural project are great, Art + Soul likely could benfit with stronger art elements, rather such a predicable emphasis on the past. Art is one of Oakland’s most valuable cultural productions at the moment, as the popularity of Art Murmur’s monthly gallery walk and Oakland First Fridays’ street festival seem to attest. Organizers this year seem to know that intuitively.

“A festival is art in and of itself, and art has to reinvent itself to stay relevant and continue to be a focal point for the community,” Roberts said about Art + Soul, which helped lead the way in showcasing what Oakland has to offer culturally and artistically and broke ground for other local festivals.

Excitement over the festival was building at press time, when Roberts reported in an email that vendor space had sold out and noted and that artisan booths in particular were up 64 percent. Art + Soul had also reached its sponsorship target, which was increased 25 percent over 2013, she said.

“We have been kocking ourselves out / ramping way up to ensure a superbly successful 2014 festival,” Roberts said.

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