Mt. Airy Artz and Groove festival attracts smaller than expected crowd

This weekend saw a much smaller turnout than what was originally anticipated for the inaugural Mt. Airy Artz and Groove festival. The event, put on by the October Gallery, drew significantly less attendance than what was feared by neighborhood organizations who had expressed numerous concerns upon learning a new festival would be taking place in the community. The weekend-long art and music fair attracted approximately 1000 people.

October Gallery founder, Mercer Redcross told Newsworks that the festival was a “soft opening.” He said the fete is a starting place to see how well such an event can work in a new location.

Last autumn, October Gallery shut down the 7100 block of Germantown Avenue for three days during its International Art Expo. It caused frustration for some neighboring business owners who complained that the street closure came with little advance notice and had hurt their profits. This time around, Redcross sought to find a solution to past grievances and teamed up with local landlord David Fellner to host the Mt. Airy Artz and Groove both inside the 7165 Lounge and outside in the large rear parking lot behind the Sedgwick Theater. Germantown Avenue remained open to traffic during the event.

“People think of parking lots as only for cars, but we wanted to use it as a community gathering space,” Fellner stated.

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In the two months leading up to the Mt. Airy Artz and Groove Redcross also met with Mt. Airy USA, West Mt. Airy Neighbors and East Mt. Airy Neighbors in an effort to build better relationships and gain increased community support for the festival.

Music and a message

Hands down, the highlight of the Mt. Airy Artz and Groove was the music. Festival-goers got their groove on, taking in the sounds of old school R&B classics, a variety of jazz sub-genres, a children’s’ choir and powerhouse gospel vocals. Abstract Truth, Tasha Underwood, Kaligata, The Blue Notes, John “Sax” Williams and Tamika Patton were among the many featured musical acts.

Several last minute changes marked the event. Friday evening’s main attraction, Clifton Davis was unable to make his scheduled concert at the 7165 Lounge. Redcross explained that Davis wound up stuck in Charlotte, North Carolina because of a flight cancellation. William Hart, lead vocalist of Philadelphia soul group The Delfonics, stepped in for Davis and took a sparse audience on a trip down memory lane.

Saturday’s daytime lineup also experienced some last minute scheduling switch ups. A political rally for President Obama dominated the early afternoon. 2012 Obama Campaign Regional Field Director, Phil Gaskin organized the push to get out the vote. Actress Tatyana Ali spoke to African-Americans for Obama, calling on them to be pro-active in the coming election.

The 7165 Lounge also hosted a well-attended Father’s Day brunch on Sunday.

For vendors exposure made up for lower sales

Despite a smaller than anticipated crowds, vendors voiced overall satisfaction with the event. Portrait artist, Gary C. Thompson said that he made no sales on Saturday, but did receive a commission to create a portrait of the recently deceased Edward Robinson, PhD. for Robinson’s upcoming funeral this week. “It’s an extreme honor,” stated Thompson, who likened Dr. Robinson’s influence as similar in magnitude to Dr. Martin Luther King and Paul Robeson in the local African-American community.

Low attendance equalled no sales for local artist Don Stephens. “It turned into a PR thing instead, but that’s okay,” he remarked. Stephens said he was pleased with the opportunity to get his name out and showcase his art work to the public. Other vendors managed to do okay even though festival turnout was somewhat disappointing. Jeffrey Glenn Reese disclosed that he sold four paintings on Saturday.

Several vendors, including textile artist, Janet Sampson, said that being located in the rear parking lot behind the Sedgwick Theater likely contributed to a weekend festival slower than seen in the last Art Expo. “They don’t know we’re back here,” she said.

The Mt. Airy Artz and Groove festival had to compete for attention with Father’s Day, Saturday’s Juneteenth celebration and graduation ceremonies. Attendee Patrice Williams shared that she wound up at Juneteenth on Saturday because she mistook the street closure on the 6300 block of Germantown Avenue as being part of the Mt. Airy Artz and Groove. Williams eventually found the way to her originally intended destination on Sunday.

Unique urban space

The general consensus among festival attendees, vendors and musicians was that the expansive parking lot with its loading dock, plus adjoining yard space between it and the 7165 Lounge, has enormous potential as festival venue.

“Such an amazing space!” exclaimed artist Edwin Lester. He voiced a desire to see future events held on the lot with vendors situated along the perimeter, leaving plenty of space for audience seating in front of the loading dock. Local musician, Ogunkemi said providing some reserved seating for elders would be an improvement to consider for any future happenings on the site. The loading dock is “a natural stage,” he enthused.

Redcross intends to bring October Gallery’s International Art Expo to the lot this autumn.

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