As the sixth annual Westobou Festival opens Wednesday, organizers say they have finally hit the mark for an event that constantly changed in its early years.
The five-day festival features 19 events spanning visual art, music, film, dance and literature. This year, the festival added The Color Run, a popular 5k run that Westobou hopes will draw more interest to the festival and diversify the audience age.
“Westobou has been an ever-evolving and ever-changing festival,” said executive director Molly McDowell. “We are finally getting our footing and hitting our stride with who we want to be.”
The inaugural Westobou event was held in September 2008 over two weekends and the week in between. The Porter Fleming Foundation, a local philanthropic group focused on arts and culture, committed an annual $300,000 endowment to the event. It hoped sponsorships and grants would raise the endowment by $200,000 in the subsequent three years.
Modeled after the internationally-acclaimed Spoleto festival held in Charleston each spring, Westobou founders hoped it would be a catalyst for Augusta’s tourism industry. A heavy marketing campaign targeted a 200-mile radius of Augusta.
According to the Augusta Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, the 2013 festival is forecast to generate $202,000 in visitor spending. In 2009, the first year the economic impact was tallied for Westobou, that number was about $35,370. The number peaked in 2012 at $224,900.
For the second time, Westobou will be much smaller than its original design. What started as 200 events over 10 days was compressed to 50 in 2011. The next year, the schedule was shortened to just five days, a format that organizers kept for the 2013 festival.
While some art leaders acknowledge that Westobou hasn’t reached the regional appeal of Spoleto, McDowell says Westobou has established its own identity while sharing some similarities with the Charleston festival.
“Westobou wants to be Westobou,” she said.
Brenda Durant, executive director of the Greater Augusta Arts Council, said Westobou has gradually broadened its appeal. The Augusta festival has excelled at bringing arts programming that has never been seen in the city before, she said.
“We are getting there and I’ll think we’ll get that reputation,” Durant said.
McDowell said some Westobou acts have also appeared at Spoleto, such as this year’s music headliner JOHNNYSWIM. The 2013 festival has also gotten attention from the Atlanta arts community including several blog posts, she said.
Westobou cofounder and Porter Fleming Foundation chairman Cobbs Nixon said a long-range planning committee met biweekly over the last two months to shape the festival’s future, mostly how it can become self-sustaining. Funding from the foundation has gradually decreased, he said.
Westobou still hasn’t reached the status of Spoleto but the festival has been a success, Nixon said.
“Over the years, we have made an enormous financial and cultural contribution,” he said.
McDowell said tickets have sold out to Wednesday’s film screening of “Versailles ‘73,” a fashion documentary, and Sunday’s celebration of Starkey Flythe Jr., the late Augusta writer.
Last-minute ticket sales were strong on Tuesday, she said.