History of Festal
The History of Seattle Center’s Festál
By Fred F. Poyner IV ; Posted 10/19/2016
HistoryLink.org Essay 20154
Festál, a joint community and city-led effort to provide a series of cultural festivals at the Seattle Center, was founded in 1997. The origins of the program may be traced back to the 1962 World’s Fair and to Seattle’s hosting of country-specific exhibits that reflected the international focus and flavor of the exposition. During the 1990s, key facilities such as the Center House (Armory Building), Fisher Pavilion (Flag Pavilion), and the Pacific Arts Center (Nile Shrine Temple) that served as venues for post-World’s Fair festival events were part of the redevelopment of Seattle Center. This redevelopment served as a catalyst for the formation of Festál as a group of united festivals instead of each functioning as a stand-alone event. The perceived need for such a series was driven by economic necessity to help make the festivals more cost effective and as part of a broader effort to revamp free public programming for Seattle Center.After two years of meetings and discussions begun in 1995, which involved Seattle Center administrators, community advocates, and the Office of Mayor Norm Rice (b. 1943), Festál launched its first public program on January 20, 1997, with the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. In that first year, the series offered 11 events, each with a unique cultural focus, identity, and range of activities, at no cost to the public. Since its start, seven established “pre-Festál” festivals such as Festival Sundiata (an African American cultural celebration), the Irish Week Festival, and Northwest Folklife Festival have joined with festivals added over the years, including an Iranian Festival, a Live Aloha Hawaiian Cultural Festival, and Diwali: Lights of India. These have made significant contributions to the cultural programming offered at the Seattle Center in the past 19 years of the series.
A Legacy of International Celebration
The 1962 World’s Fair, which presented Seattle Center as a public community-oriented space, built upon the existing site’s core buildings. These included a civic auditorium/exposition hall, an ice arena, and a field armory. Beginning in 1958, architect Paul Thiry (1904-1993) designed new buildings and spaces, resulting in the International Fountain Pavilion, Coliseum, Playhouse, Opera House, and KeyArena.
Several of these buildings added for the World’s Fair offered the public a chance to experience performing arts, music, cuisine, and exhibits from different countries. Both the International Fountain Building and the adjoining Northwest Rooms served this purpose, with exhibits from seven international regions and countries represented. The exhibits were mandatory for obtaining official support for the project. The Bureau of International Expositions, as “the governing body that granted Century 21 Exposition true World Fair status, stipulated that participating nations be provided free space, protected from the elements” (Seattle Center Historic Landmark Study, 25).
Just as many of Thiry’s building designs were intended to last beyond the World’s Fair as places for the community to enjoy, so too did the public’s use of these spaces continue to focus on them as venues for the promotion of cultural diversity. In the two decades following the World’s Fair, different community groups rented spaces from the city to host community-sponsored festivals. The Flag Pavilion Building and the Armory Building were especially popular, given their centralized locations in Seattle Center and their popularity as public gathering spaces. Until it was demolished in 2001 to make way for a new 21,000-square-foot building dubbed the Fisher Pavilion, the Flag Pavilion hosted more than 15 cultural festivals and other public events in its 39 year history.
Redevelopment Offers New Opportunity
In 1995, planning was implemented by the City of Seattle to renovate the Seattle Center Armory as part of a comprehensive effort both to make the Seattle Center more profitable and to reinvigorate its public programming. This effort involved a focus on big ticket events, such as the Seattle SuperSonics at KeyArena, the Seattle Thunderbirds ice hockey team, Northwest Folklife festival, Bite of Seattle, and Bumbershoot. At the same time, administrators of Seattle Center — led by Seattle Center’s director, Virginia Anderson (b. 1948) — saw an opportunity to bring together the individual groups and communities that were presenting annual festivals reflecting shared common ethnicity, heritage, and identity. Members from the Italian, Irish, Japanese, Sundiata (African American), Chinese, and Philippine festivals (along with Northwest Folklife) were invited to participate in a series of group meetings with Seattle Center staff.
Andy Frankel (b. 1961), at the time the newly hired cultural-events coordinator, recalls both the challenges and the incentives faced by the individual groups over the next two years of meetings and planning, in an attempt to combine all of them into a cohesive, annual series under a new umbrella organization: “Each of the independent festivals had issues … in some respects they were disorganized … the meetings were to bring it back from disarray … and afford them political clout as an entity” (Fred Poyner IV Interview with Andy Frankel).
The community festival meetings were not the only changes underway at Seattle Center at this time. As part of Seattle Center’s redevelopment efforts involving public use of the space, Seattle City Council passed an ordinance in 1994 prohibiting the possession of firearms at stadiums and convention centers, which effectively ended the practice of vendor firearm sales at gun shows held on Seattle Center grounds. A year later, discussions between Seattle Center administrators and Seattle City Council continued to focus on the loss of revenue earned by the sports franchises that leased space at the center. The ice-hockey team was noted as one agreement where “negotiation on capacity/assumption needs to be changed” and that the city would “have to make up the revenue … [one of the] pressure points that Seattle Center is having to fill” (“Seattle Center Agreements,” 2).
Representatives of the community festivals (the majority of which were already non-profit entities in their own right) expressed concerns about joining together as part of a new annual series. Paramount among these was the fear of losing individual identity in the process of forming an organization with many other diverse partners. In the words of one observer, some believed it was “too difficult to do” (Fred Poyner IV Interview with Steve Sneed).
Director and Mayor Show the Way
In 1988 Seattle Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) hired Virginia Anderson as the director for Seattle Center. With the assistance of Andy Frankel and Dennis Caldirola (b. 1948) of Festa Italiana, Anderson encouraged festival representatives to see the financial advantages of a cohesive series. Chief among these was the ability to negotiate with the city for the rental of space at a reduced cost during the festivals. One way Seattle Center sought to motivate the different groups to come together was by offering a financial incentive by way of discounted city services and in-kind support with venues. In the words of one Seattle Center official, if the city were to “put some money on the table, they’ll come together” (Fred Poyner IV Interview with Steve Sneed).
Throughout the two-year process of engagement with festival leaders, Anderson continued to promote diversified programs at the Seattle Center. In 1996, the theater production Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 by playwright Anna Deavere Smith (b. 1950) was featured, with the director calling it “an opportunity for business leaders and high school students to use the play as a catalyst for discussing the character of our community” (Anderson to Donaldson).
Seattle Mayor Norm Rice (b. 1943) was also an ally in the effort to join the festivals in common cause. After Festál’s first year of operation, the City of Seattle’s annual budget called out a need to “increase private sponsorships of cultural programs” and to “target efforts to engage underwriting sponsors for Seattle Center cultural festivals” (City of Seattle Adopted Budget and 1998 Endorsed Budget, 321, 325). Rice publicly supported Festál as well, establishing a precedent of support for Festál for all Seattle mayors following him, up to the present day.
In 1997, there were 11 groups and events officially identified as part of Festál, including Northwest Folklife. The mission of Seattle Center was highlighted as the Northwest’s preeminent gathering place and home to many cultural events, sports teams, community programs, festivals, and entertainment facilities, while the mission of Festál was specific in its mandate to showcase “events that promote the cultural and ethnic traditions of our heritages, for the enjoyment and enlightenment of all people in the larger community” (“2016-2017 Fest Certification Application,” 2).Economic Challenges Versus Free Programming
One of the standards endorsed by the Festál partners in stressing the importance of Seattle Center and especially Center House as a public space accessible to all was to keep the festivals free for the public to attend throughout the year. Obtaining new sponsors was imperative to help keep this possible from one year to the next. During the first few years of the series, even with the support of commercial interests and with city support through use of Seattle Center facilities, some financial difficulties were encountered.
During the first year of the series, one of Festál’s founding members — the Northwest Folklife Festival — ended the year with a deficit. The following year it began soliciting donations from the public, with a pledge that admission would remain free of charge. Despite the city providing 13 percent of the Folklife budget in the way of in-kind support through free use of Seattle Center facilities, the event found itself operating in the red. Inclement weather resulting in poor attendance further contributed to the losses. By 1999, Folklife’s director, Michael Herschensohn (b. 1941) was appealing to the city for additional support above and beyond what Seattle Center was already providing: “The survival of the Folklife Festival is at risk. Unprecedented circumstances in recent years have left the organization facing a dire financial challenge. Folklife is seeking $200,000 from the City of Seattle to ensure the survival of the FREE Folklife Festival in 1999 and our stabilization” (Herschensohn, 1).
The prospect of Folklife becoming an admission-paid event resulted in a public outcry. The city came to realize the need for support as a part of its city budget planning process if it was to support the vision it shared with Festál to promote the Seattle Center as a community space offering a diverse range of cultural programs. In its 2015 adopted budget, the City of Seattle allocated $1,342,795 for its Festival Budget Control Level, or FBC Level, which served as a funding base “to provide a place for the community to hold major festival celebrations” (City of Seattle 2016 Proposed Budget, 120). Sponsors have also made significant contributions to keep the series going. In 2016 the list of these included local and national sponsors, from KUOW 94.9 Public Radio and RealNetworks to Coca-Cola and Wells Fargo bank.
With the demolition of the Domestic Commerce and Industry Building/Flag Pavilion Building in 2001, Center House became the primary venue for Festál series until the new Fisher Pavilion was completed in September 2002. The new space, which included 14,000 square feet of exhibition space, resumed use as a festival gathering place.
New Additions Over Time
Over the years Festál has expanded, with new member organizations coming in. For admission, the Seattle Center and its foundation established a thorough and transparent review and vetting process as described by the managing artistic director:
“Interested organizations approach me with their desire for a festival here at Seattle Center to be a part of Festál. I accept an application if we have the desired dates and staff capacity. Because we provide the labor and venues we sometimes are at capacity so we do not accept new events. Once we determine we have capacity for the event we enter into “incubation” for the event. During this period which will last 1-3 years depending on all of the variables, we are both able to learn about each other. The Festival learns what is expected of a Festál event and we learn if they have the capacity to deliver what is needed. If the “incubation” period woks out for both we accept the event into the Festál We use what we call a Certification application. All events in the series must be certified every two years” (Sneed to Poyner IV, September 12, 2016).
Despite economic setbacks, the popularity of Festál as an annual series has grown over time, with demand for the inclusion of more festivals. In 2001, the Seattle Jewish Festival joined the series, with 20,000 visitors showing up at the Seattle Center to celebrate (Sara Jean Green, p. 21). Other added festivals have included an Arab Festival (held every other year since 1999), an Iranian Festival, a Live Aloha Hawaiian Cultural Festival, and the most recent addition — Diwali: Lights of India — in 2016. A total of 23 festivals and celebrations mark the latest year of the series.
In 2017, Festál celebrates its 20-year anniversary of community engagement and multicultural public programs at the Seattle Center.