In the 24 years since its inception, the Houston International Festival has grown from a cozy, two-block-long arts and crafts show to a 22-square-block blowout that stretches over ten days, replete with heavyweight corporate sponsors like Enron and AeroMexico and a president who pulls down a six-figure salary.
And this year, there's another new feature: an admission charge. Tickets for the festival, which runs from Thursday, April 20, through April 30, are $3 in advance and $5 at the gates for adults.
Festival organizers say the vagaries of Houston's weather are forcing them to charge for admission for the first time. Heavy rains have dampened attendance three out of the last four years, they say, and forced the cancellation of almost an entire weekend of the festival last year. And Rodney King apparently also figures somewhere in the calculus: during the one dry year out of the past four, attendance was down because of fears that rioting in Los Angeles might spread to Houston (well, that's what festival officials say, anyway).
"Last year during the festival there was a 20 percent chance of rain," explains festival president James Austin. "Well, it rained 20 percent of the time, which was all the hours of the festival."
Austin says directors of the Houston International Foundation, the non-profit that stages the festival, convened an emergency meeting after last year's deluge to consider cost-cutting measures. One step they took was to slash the festival's full-time staff from 15 to seven, although Austin's $110,000 annual salary remained intact.
The board also decided that instituting an admissions charge was the only way the festival could survive short of asking the city of Houston for direct funding -- which Austin says wasn't really a viable option, given the city's budget constraints.
"In this day and age, new hits on the city budget are a hard sell," says Austin, who points out that other similar city festivals charge admission and that many are partly funded by local governments.
However, the Houston International Festival does get some support from the city in the form of in-kind contributions for police protection and other services. It also receives a direct contribution from the Cultural Arts Council of Houston, which is funded by a share of the city's hotel/motel occupancy tax. In 1994, the CACH gave the festival just more than $58,000. The level of support from other government sources is likewise small. This year the Texas Commission on the Arts is forking over a mere $15,260. The festival obtained no money from the National Endowment for the Arts, after receiving $5,000 from the NEA last year.
Those sort of numbers don't go far in producing a ten-day festival, which this year has a $4.1 million budget. The festival's educational program is also funded out of that budget. Austin takes great pride in the fact that each year the foundation produces, with assistance from the Junior League, 10,000 books about the festival's country of honor at a cost of about $50,000. (Kurds be forewarned: this year's honoree is Turkey.) The books are distributed among school districts around the state and country.
The greater part of the event's funding has long been the revenue generated by the festival's take of food and beverage sales and fees charged to arts and crafts merchants. Food venders must pay $24,000 per booth for the entire festival. Merchants pay $150 per weekend for their space. The festival gets all the beverage revenues. Since Austin's arrival on the scene, however, corporate participation has been emphasized more than ever before. In 1994 corporate sponsorship accounted for 30 percent of the festival budget.
Austin was hired as president of the festival in 1987, the year after Jean-Michel Jarre's light-and-sound spectacle sent the festival $357,000 in the hole. A year after Austin took over, the festival foundation was able to retire the debt, as well as a $250,000 bank loan.
It was also in 1987 that the festival put the word international in its title and began focusing on one specific country each year as part of an effort to make the festival more attractive to corporate sponsors. In exchange for the corporate support of the event, festival officials stage receptions and seminars to help those companies make contacts and possibly do business with the country of honor.
"Getting them involved gives them a confidence that this festival is important to this community in a deep sense, not just a frivolous sense, and that they can be part of it," says Austin. "We do that not only at the seminar, but also have face-to-face business meetings set up for them and have opportunities for them to network. I think that gives them the feeling that, while they may not understand the curatorial side of it, that the Houston International Festival is an important thing for the community and needs to be supported."
One of this year's corporate sponsors has drawn the ire of Councilwoman Eleanor Tinsley. The anti-tobacco crusading councilwoman isn't pleased that Benson & Hedges is one of the festival's sponsors and will be passing out coupons and free samples of its product during the event.
"The festival does need the money," acknowledges Tinsley, "but to me it's sort of blood money. To me it's a serious problem."
But Tinsley's outrage over tobacco company sponsorship of the festival isn't so pronounced that she thinks the city should cough up additional funds for the event. Instead, the festival should simply be more choosy when it comes to its sponsors, Tinsley says.
Others would prefer no corporate involvement at all. They fondly recall when the festival and its satellite events were simpler undertakings. One of the most popular features of the festival is the Art Car Parade, which, according to one of the original organizers, began as an "anti-parade." And Trish Hererra says she's not surprised that the roadside attraction is no longer free.
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"I guess this is how everything eventually ends up," says Hererra, an artist and hairstylist. "It's not surprising that it would end up like this because everything finally comes around to being sponsored by Budweiser."
But Austin has no apologies for the corporate sponsorships -- tobacco company or otherwise -- or the new admission fee, which he hopes will generate at least $500,000. He's proud that he's taken an event that began in 1971 as the Main Street Festival and transformed it into an extravaganza that features hundreds of local and international artists and performers and is attended by close to a million people each year -- weather permitting.
"It's not possible to [have a festival without an admission fee]," says Austin. "That's why nobody else does it."
At least not any more.