Musikfest Takes A Village

Many festivals offer fans tickets in exchange for volunteering a certain number of hours during an event. But for volunteers of a long-running, largely free festival in Bethlehem, Pa., tickets aren’t part of the deal.

Musikfest, which was founded in 1984 and relies heavily on a massive volunteer workforce, is expected to draw around 1 million visitors – last year saw a record 1.15 million in attendance – to the city this summer for the Aug. 7-16 festival.

Attendees will travel, plus food and beverage sales serve as the legs of a stool that helps support the free event. Musikfest has more than 150 corporate partners that help keep the festival afloat by providing cash, trading or offering in-kind gifts.

Around 2,500 ArtsQuest members also support the fest through levels of donations that range from $100 to $25,000 annually. Though the festival typically gets walkups for some shows, ticket sales totals are often known well before the event kicks off. But food and beverage is the one area that varies the most from year to year and can really affect the bottom line, Hilgert said.

“Food and beverage is almost completely dependent upon walkups. So if we have a great weather year, the organization is going to have a great year,” she said. The varied programming – Musikfest features everything from alternative to zydeco, rock, rap, country, jazz, pop, polka and everything in between – and the overwhelming support from the surrounding community appear to be paying off. “We’re looking at a $45 million economic impact on the city each year,” Hilgert said. Musikfest was founded in 1984 in the wake of layoffs at Bethlehem Steel to help promote tourism in the area using arts and culture as an engine for economic development.

Now, the fest and several of ArtsQuest’s other endeavors like the Banana Factory visual arts center, SteelStacks performing arts campus and the  are being studied by other communities as a model for using arts and culture to drive urban revitalization.

“We know this model has worked and we would love to work with other communities in that,” Hilgert said. “What’s so key to that is you can have the best programming in the world but you’ve got to have the support of the community and the city to embrace whatever is authentic in your community and build on it. It isn’t just a matter of you dropping a concert somewhere and people getting excited. You have to create programming that people relate to and find authentic.”

Now, Bethlehem and the surrounding Lehigh Valley have grown from an area where there was “just not a lot to do” in the early ’80s to a highly competitive marketplace for music, which Hilgert acknowledges can be challenging. “We’ve created this very competitive marketplace and we’re doing our best to maintain our niche and this model,” she said. “While it’s not always the easy road, we do think it’s a very important way that arts and culture can be involved in a bigger conversation about economic development.”