Arts in the Heart is swallowed by a whale of a festival

Black socks and sandals — to listen to Brenda Durant, it’s a positively sexy combination. The Greater Augusta Arts Council’s executive director would like to see this trend take over the Garden City.

Call it the Westobou Look. A partnership between the Porter Fleming Foundation and the Greater Augusta Arts Councilresulted in a plan for an autumn arts festival, called Westobou, that’s expected to attract regional tourism with nationally recognized performers and highlight the wealth of arts in this area.

Westobou is named after the Native American word for the Savannah River and inspired by the wildly successful Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto celebrations, Charleston ’s annual spring celebration that promotes the local arts and boosts tourism. Activities and performances will be held at downtown, Paine College and Augusta State Universitylocations — the “triangle of culture,” as one organizer put it.

The festival is a venture that the partners see not only an investment in the arts, but in the community as a whole. According to a study by the University of South Carolina , Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto attendees spent $43.1 million in the Charleston area in 2005.

Of course, it’s more than a moneymaking venture. No one ever went into the arts to get rich. But what Augusta has, said steering committee member Cobbs Nixon, is an edge over other cities that might care to compete.

“We have a vast array of cultural and artistic organizations, probably more than any of our sister cities,” he said. This festival was a way for the foundation to make a significant impact on the arts community. The hitch is the foundation’s mission: “We are simply in the business of writing checks.” Because the foundation doesn’t coordinate organizations or planning massive, community-wide events, the Greater Augusta Arts Council has been brought in to administrate the event.

“They put on the annual Arts in the Heart of Augusta festival, which will remain; but it will become a fixture of the first weekend of what is projected to be a 10-day fiesta, instead of the stand-alone event Arts in the Heart has been for 27 years.

Programming for Westobou will be handled through the Greater Augusta Arts Council, individual arts organizations and cooperative arrangements between them. Marketing will be financed by the foundation, which has pledged $300,000 to fund the first year of the event in 2008, with an eye on increasing that funding every year through donations, sponsorships, grants and partnerships. The foundation will maintain this support for at least the first three to four years, according to Durant.

She expects that nearly $200,000 of that money will be used for administration and marketing, leaving about $100,000 open for event funding. But the committee hopes to offset their costs with grants from the Convention and Visitors Bureau and other tourism and marketing funding resources, so the amount available to organizations could vary.

“I think of that money as the booster money,” Durant said. “For the most part, the Porter Fleming Foundation shouldn’t have to pay for a whole performance; it should be something that is value-added.”

So, for example, if an organization like the Augusta Players has always wanted to put on a play, but the rights and sets have been cost-prohibitive, that’s a case where Westobou funding could step in to fill the gap between what an organization desires and what an organization can achieve financially. And filling the seats for those performances will be easier.

“They’ll benefit from the increased exposure from the giant marketing campaign,” Durant said.

Dr. Donald Portnoy, the artistic director for the Augusta Symphony, volunteered to work as artistic director for Westobou. Portnoy has been involved not only in the Spoleto Festival, but also with arts festival planning in.

The committee pirated event planner Kathi Dimmock away from Fort Discovery , where she was director of marketing, and put her at the helm of the festival’s maiden voyage. Dimmock is, after all, the woman who founded the Yellow Daisy Festival at Atlanta’s Stone Mountain Park . That four-day fest began with just four vendors, and stood at several hundred when she left — with a waiting list to get in. The outdoor show sees an average of 200,000 attendees and is consistently selected for tourism awards and top-10 lists.

While the Spoleto season brought in 155,000 people to the coastal city, for Augusta ’s first year, the Westobou committee is aiming a little lower.

“Our goal is to fill all of the available hotel rooms in the Aiken-Augusta area for the 10-day period,” Durant said, a number she estimated at about 6,500. There is a difference between positioning a festival in a town with an already-strong tourism industry, and positioning a town with a festival that it is hoped will attract a strong tourism industry. But with 1.5 million tourists in every year, Durant is convinced, “This will be a case of build it, they will come.”

Augusta’s downtown is the type of thing other cities would like to purchase, roll up and roll out on their streets. Wide sidewalks, tree-lined medians and proximity to natural and man-made attractions, along with the resources on the campuses of Paine College and Augusta State University , have primed the city for a fanny-pack invasion, according to Durant.

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