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Hopefully on Steadier Ground, iFest Turns a Corner

A scene from the 2013 Houston International Festival, when the spotlight country was Brazil
A scene from the 2013 Houston International Festival, when the spotlight country was Brazil
Photos courtesy of Houston International Festival

It's hard to believe that the Houston International Festival was once just a street fair in front of Jones Hall and the Alley Theatre, but that's but one wrinkle in a fascinating history that stretches back to 1971. iFest has been all over the city, from Main Street downtown to Reliant Park, but officials are hoping this year it will enter a new era at the freshly renovated Sam Houston Park, one a little less tumultuous than in recent years.

iFest is now one of Houston's oldest citywide public celebrations, and said to be its original arts-oriented festival. It is definitely one of its most unique: each year it highlights a "spotlight country" (this year is Australia), and orients its food, music and other cultural programming toward that nation as much as possible, as it does with the curriculum guide it produces and distributes to schoolchildren across the Houston area.

But iFest has had a run of bad luck lately. Rain has stalked the festival for the past few years, but never worse than last year, when a downpour forced the cancellation of almost an entire day's worth of programming, including headliner Los Lobos. On top of that, construction around Sam Houston Park -- especially the natural amphitheater that normally houses the main stage -- led to stages being moved around the area around City Hall that hosts the festival, and made getting around it somewhat difficult at times. (Note: the Houston Press is a sponsor of iFest this year.)

But even more significantly, last summer the Houston Festival Foundation, the nonprofit that produces iFest, decided to stop producing the city's annual Thanksgiving Day parade because the holiday event had been sinking it in debt to the tune of some $200,000 or $300,000 per year for the last two or three. The City of Houston itself eventually decided to shoulder the cost of the parade, but according to a September 30 article in the Houston Chronicle, iFest also asked the city to temporarily pay some of the cleaning expenses incurred at last year's event (which it did, and iFest repaid), and had to set up a payment plan before City Hall would agree to renew its special-events permit for 2014.

But a new year brings a clean slate, and iFest's Kim Stoilis, Executive Director of the Houston Festival Foundation, says the foundation has changed offices to space that was donated to them and "realistically" addressed its budget, even managing to build in a "rain day." But it was a serious situation: Stoilis, who has been with the foundation since 2011, reckons that producing the parade one more year could well have spelled the end of iFest.

"That's just a harsh reality," she says. "[The parade is] a great event, and we're so pleased that the city was able to produce it, but as a nonprofit, what business is it of ours producing free events that we can't afford?"

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iFest's Kim Stoilis at the launch party announcing Australia as 2014's spotlight country
iFest's Kim Stoilis at the launch party announcing Australia as 2014's spotlight country

According to the Web site charitynavigator.org, which evaluates nonprofits for potential donors looking to invest, the Houston Festival Foundation scored slightly better than average marks, with 37 out of 70 for its financials and 40 out of 70 for Accountability & Transparency. (2012 is the most recent year figures were available.) But Stoilis says the festival has made some big strides towards stability even since then.

Besides the drain on the budget exacted by the parade, she says staff has been able to redirect all the time it would have been taken up, which led to what Stoilis calls "our head chasing our tail," into iFest's education programs and community outreach with programs like Young Audiences. The foundation's backers have been pleased, she notes.

"Absolutely to a T, every one of them has been fully supportive," Stoilis says. "They didn't understand why we were producing the parade anyway, and they supported us 100 percent. They felt like it was a very good decision."

Stoilis is also expecting the improvements to Sam Houston Park to make a huge difference this year.

"On top of everything else, we produced a festival in a war zone," she says. "I remember I had a meeting last year with the Texas Festival & Events Association, and it was in one of the buildings around the festival. We were on a high floor, and it truly looked like it had been bombed out, and there was a festival in the middle of it. So this year, Sam Houston's beautiful."

iFest returns to downtown Houston Saturday and Sunday. See ifest.org for ticket information and artist schedules; gates open at 10 a.m.

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