iFest President & CEO Jim Austin Stepping Down February 1

Festival not booking Justin Beiber, interim replacement says

Speaking of festivals...

The Houston International Festival announced earlier today that Dr. James Austin will retire as president and chief executive officer of the Houston Festival Foundation, the nonprofit organization that oversees the production of the annual springtime music, arts and cultural festival informally known as iFest.

Austin, 65, has overseen the festival for 24 years and will step down effective February 1. Former Houston Chronicle music critic and occasional Rocks Off contributor Rick Mitchell, currently iFest's artistic director, will take over as interim president and CEO while the HFF board of directors conducts a search for a permanent replacement. Mitchell would not comment publicly on whether or not he is a candidate for the job.

"Jim Austin kept this festival alive through rain or shine and remained true to the original vision celebrating Houston's international population with a focus on multicultural education," Mitchell told Rocks Off this afternoon. "He is leaving on his own terms, with dignity and class."

Rocks Off asked Mitchell if he would make any changes as the head of iFest, which is scheduled for the weekends of April 30-May 1 and May 7-8 in Downtown Houston with the theme "The Silk Road: Journey Across Asia," including but not limited to the countries and cultures of Turkey, China and India.

"Yeah, we're booking Justin Bieber," Mitchell laughed. "He's going to do a duet with Wayne Newton - Newton's going to dance while Bieber sings."

More seriously, Mitchell said Austin was integral in iFest's development into a world-class festival that is one of the premier events of its kind in the country. iFest is the largest individual beneficiary of grant money from the Houston Arts Alliance, which bases its awards on estimated economic impact to the city.

"What makes this event successful in Houston is that it is a very cool music festival, but that music festival is a part of a broader and bigger educational and cultural festival that appeals to people of all ages [and] is, I think unique to Houston," Mitchell said. "We're not Austin, we're not New Orleans, but we are, I think, a genuinely world-class international city, and this is the event that celebrates that."

Austin released the following statement via iFest's press office: "I am proud of the stature the festival has attained and the positive publicity it has generated for Houston. I am retiring with mixed emotions; I'm ready for retirement, but I will miss this outstanding organization driven by a truly great and talented team."

Mitchell said he would be ready to announce the initial musical acts for iFest 2011 soon.

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