Three years in, Art of Cool Festival cofounder and director Cicely Mitchell admits this is something of a make-or-break year. As with many such upstarts, the multiday, multivenue jazz-and-soul event—which filled the festival void for Durham after it went a half-decade without one—has never broken even, in spite of steadily increasing revenues.
A biostatistician by day, Mitchell has never taken a salary from the event and, alongside her parents, has invested more than $75,000 into it. If the festival can't become solvent in May, she says she may pause Art of Cool or move it outside of Durham—a city that, especially this year, has given the event something of a cool reception.
"Like every year, we're definitely going to evaluate the festival," she says with a sigh. "We'll see what our options are to continue it."
In late March, during a city council work session, Mitchell took a necessary step toward staying. She made a plea for more money—$20,000—which would help her cut fewer corners on things like artist hospitality and move toward profitability in the final weeks before Art of Cool begins.
It was her second time asking the city for money for this year's event. Months earlier, she had requested $20,000 from Durham's Office of Economic and Workforce Development, but she was given only a quarter of it, $5,000—$3,000 less than the previous year and $3,250 less than the event's inaugural edition. Last year, the county denied Art of Cool's separate $5,000 request, which commissioner Wendy Jacobs attributes to a lack of new available funds for nonprofits like Art of Cool. Mitchell was disappointed, but Art of Cool had always been a bootstrap operation, an unpaid labor of love.
So she pressed on, at least until learning that the city's new festival recruit, Moogfest, was seeking $62,500 from the city and a matching amount from Durham County. That was more than five times what Art of Cool had received from either in three years combined, and the for-profit Moogfest seemed poised to get it, based on economic-impact projections of around $7 million. Those public dollars would fund free festival programming, including an outdoor electronic concert for children, synthesizer workshops, and an interactive LED display in CCB Plaza.
During a public comment period after Moogfest's March presentation—in which the festival boasted that 60 percent of its attendees had a household income of more than $100,000—Mitchell stepped to the podium. Her voice cracked nervously during her first-ever talk before the council.
"We are very grassroots, but the lineup that we claim is of national and international acclaim," Mitchell told the council. "Our audience breakdown really reflects the population here in Durham: sixty-six percent is African-American, twenty-four percent is white-Caucasian."
Step by step, she explained the costs necessary to upfit the Durham Armory, an eighty-year-old, city-owned space. She would need to expand the stage, add light and sound systems, and rent a generator to power them all. The council responded enthusiastically, with Mayor Bill Bell and council member Steve Schewel agreeing that Art of Cool merited more city support.
Still, for nearly a month, Mitchell heard nothing. After a mid-April meeting—with the festival set to begin May 6—even council member Jillian Johnson said she didn't know if the item would come up in time, as it had yet to appear on an agenda.
Two days later, city manager Thomas Bonfield seemed perplexed by the question.
"Yes, Art of Cool will get those funds. They have been approved," Bonfield told the INDY, explaining that the city council doesn't need to vote on appropriations of less than $50,000. "We have not finalized the paperwork yet."
Less than an hour later, Mitchell and Johnson both reached out to share news that their festival and their council, respectively, had yet to hear. On Monday night, Mitchell returned to the county commissioners to ask them to match this $20,000. Despite turning down her earlier $5,000 request, they agreed.