The American Folk Festival said Tuesday that its summer 2019 edition of the 18-year-old festival was its last, and that the organization would dissolve at the end of the year.
In a press release sent out Tuesday, board chair Nicole Gogan said that there will be no festival in 2020.
The announcement brings to a close an event that brought thousands of people to the Bangor waterfront each August and, in the process, helped convince people that the waterfront was worth reviving and could even become a destination. In recent years, however, the festival has become a smaller version of itself with fewer performers and a drop in fundraising.
“Our board made the incredibly difficult decision to discontinue this festival,” Gogan said. “The decision to close was not made hastily, and was difficult for every person involved. This is a financial decision. The Board of Directors saw no clear path forward that could responsibly be taken. This is a tough, but responsible decision.”
While such a decision had been floated for some time, and the organization’s financial health had been in trouble for a few years, Gogan said, the official decision to end operations was made just this month.
“It’s been within the last few weeks,” Gogan said. “This is a very recent development.”
The festival began in 2002 as the National Folk Festival, a production of the National Council on the Traditional Arts that travels to a different city every three years; it started a three-year run in Salisbury, Maryland, this year. The National Folk Festival, on Bangor’s waterfront in 2002, 2003 and 2004, was the first large event on Bangor’s waterfront where a revitalization mostly had yet to happen.
Michael Aube, former director of the Eastern Maine Development Corporation, was on the Bangor City Council in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the notion of bringing the National Folk Festival to Bangor was first raised.
“Here we had this big, open space that was set to be cleaned up and reimagined,” said Aube. “It was a question of ‘What do we do with it?’ And focusing on cultural identity and cultural awareness was the thing we landed on. The National Folk Festival really fit the bill, from a strategic point of view.”
In 2005, a new local nonprofit that formed out of the National Folk Festival began producing the American Folk Festival, which for 15 more years brought an array of musical artists performing countless international genres to Bangor’s waterfront, alongside a number of food and craft vendors. During its peak between 2008 and 2010, the festival brought in more than $1 million in revenue from grants and corporate and individual donations, and attracted more than 100,000 attendees each year over its three days in late August, according to the festival and its tax filings.
Aube said the festival helped to not only revitalize the waterfront, but also to provide a much needed self-esteem boost to the Bangor region.
“At that time, it sounds hard to believe, but there were still people that were doom and gloom about the closing of Dow Air Force Base, which had happened 30 years prior,” said Aube. “[The festival] was the sort of thing that became a catalyst for a new kind of confidence. It made people begin to feel like things could get better. It made people want to take a chance on new opportunities.”
Though the festival helped spark a renaissance on the waterfront and downtown Bangor, it was itself not immune to the pressures of fundraising and maintaining attendance levels amid increased competition in Bangor’s arts and entertainment scene. The festival had in more recent years experienced a dramatic reduction in both funds raised and physical size. By 2017, the most recent year for which tax data are available, total revenue had dropped more than 40 percent from its peak, to about $625,000.
The 2019 festival featured just 14 artists performing on three stages — down from 24 artists performing on six stages a decade ago.
Gogan said that the festival will be officially dissolved by Dec. 31, 2019, and that discussions with the city of Bangor regarding the festival’s repayment of a $280,000 debt are ongoing and likely will not be resolved until well into the new year.
The city between 2005 and 2010 extended a line of credit to the organization, as well as providing between $75,000 and $85,000 in grant funding each of those years. This summer, the festival still owed the city $100,000.
Regardless of the festival’s decline in recent years, Gogan said she believes the event’s legacy is secure in two major ways — in its 18 years of bringing arts and culture to eastern Maine, and in making those artists and performers accessible to the general public.
And, Gogan said, the festival proved that not only was Bangor capable of hosting such an event, but that an event as large as the American Folk Festival could thrive in Bangor — helping to pave the way for other developments on the Bangor waterfront, such as outdoor concerts at the Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion, the opening of Bangor Savings Bank’s new corporate headquarters, the summertime food trucks, increased traffic at Bangor’s marina and various other events, including Blues, Brews & Barbecue and Wheels on the Waterfront.
“It’s really contributed to the growth of our community,” Gogan said. “I think it proved that Bangor could do it, and that’s pretty amazing when you think about where we came from.”