Fueling tourism as well as arts education in WNCApr 27, 2023 08:41AM ● By Randee Brown
LEAF Global Arts is a nonprofit organization that has been hosting festivals in Western North Carolina since 1995, bringing in over half a million attendees to their events in that time.
LEAF Global Arts Executive Director Jennifer Pickering said that the festivals have been adjusted post-Covid. She said people have grown to love the smaller events started since Covid, and now they host a retreat in May for just 1,500 people, compared to their larger festival in October which is attended by 10,000 people.
Prior to Covid, LEAF festivals brought in 10,000 people in the spring and fall to Black Mountain, and 30,000 each summer to downtown Asheville.
“There are a lot of kids,” Pickering said. “From the start, we wanted it to be a place where you can bring your babies and your grandma. It’s a multigenerational, family-friendly event where anyone and everyone can feel comfortable.”
LEAF festivals are a draw for tourists from around the country, according to Associate Director Alexa Kincaid. “It’s almost like a family reunion,” Kincaid said. “People come from all over – from places like California, Chicago, and New York, and they come back year after year.”
Performing artists also hail from a wide variety of locations. “We have major acts coming from as far as Africa,” Kincaid said. “We love to support our local poets and musicians too. Smaller local artists will perform on stage between the bigger names.”
Business owners in Black Mountain, surrounding communities, and members of area Chambers of Commerce say that it is obviously clear when the LEAF community shows up, according to Pickering. She said 55% of attendees are from WNC, and the remaining 45% are from outside of the region, and about half stay overnight at the festival.
“The rest of them are staying in local communities, supporting area lodging, restaurants, and shops,” Pickering said. “There are also 350 supporting staff, some of which come from outside of the region for this event. Not to mention more than 100 performing groups and acts and about 300 individual performers, and more than 80 craft and folk art vendors and their teams. It’s like building a small city.”
“It’s a tremendous weekend for local artists and their sales,” Kincaid said. “They are very competitive because so many want to be able to vend at the festival.” She said since the location in Black Mountain is so secluded, attendees don’t really leave once they are set up, which creates a demand for any and every type of vendor including food, clothing, jewelry, massage, healing arts, drinks, and even skateboards.
Pickering noted the “unseen” industry behind the festivals’ infrastructure as well. She said there are suppliers of walkie talkies, tent rentals, sanitation items, as well as distributors that are all sourced locally, seeing a large impact from each festival.
With a mission to connect culture and create community, LEAF festival revenue is used for several missions including supporting local and teaching artists, education arts programs for Buncombe County Schools, as well as cultural preservation in 13 different countries.
Schools In Streets utilizes local artists and headlining acts to visit schools and teach about culture, who they are, and how they got to where they are in their arts careers. Children may be invited to perform onstage alongside the artists, and their families that may be otherwise unable to attend the festivals are invited to participate.
Revenue from LEAF Global Arts also gives back to the community by helping local children attend summer camp programs. The organization is able to offer summer camp on a sliding scale for families who feel summer camp experiences are too cost prohibitive.
“This allows us to meet people where they are,” Kincaid said. “Kids of all backgrounds can participate in arts, music, and cultural programs and have the same summer camp opportunities as their peers at school.”
The organization’s work in cultural appreciation and preservation inspires yearly themes for the festival. For 2023, the theme is Legends of the Americas. “I’m blown away by how much I am learning and how little we know of the deep history of this area,” Pickering said. “I am honored to be able to work in a way to create platforms for artists to share first nation, indigenous, and Latin cultures. It’s amazing that these festivals have been woven into the fabric of the community at historic sacred locations, and I am honored to be a part of that.”