Arts & Culture » Visual Arts

Their eyes were watching the bottom line

Eatonville's Zora Neale Hurston Festival prepares for major changes



It may not have immediately come off as a hostile takeover when Thomas Kornegay, president of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community Inc. Board, issued a press release Aug. 3 announcing the board’s plans “to expand and strengthen our organization.” The association, after all, is gearing up for its 22nd iteration of the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities in January, which will fall directly in line with the 125th anniversary of the town of Eatonville in 2012. Next year’s celebration would have to be a special one.

But farther down in the fine print came the kicker: N.Y. Nathiri, the festival’s executive director and founder (as well as the author of Zora! Zora Neale Hurston: A Woman and Her Community) was being demoted to a new position titled “director of multidisciplinary programs.” In her place, an interim management team led by Paul Wyche (head of the consulting firm Wyche & Associates) would step in to “strengthen APEC’s organizational structure, streamline operations and stabilize our organization’s finances.” Also, Wyche would be charged with recruiting a new managing director for the festival.

It’s just the latest wrinkle in the contentious history of Eatonville’s signature festival, which has grown from being a strictly cultural affair centering on other notable African-American authors like Maya Angelou and Alice Walker into a tourism juggernaut featuring marquee entertainment and a state-fair midway atmosphere. That expansion hasn’t always been easy: Nathiri notoriously butted heads with Eatonville government in the 1990s over just how best to promote the festival and the town’s culture. Perhaps more importantly, though, the festival has been losing money. According to documents the board submitted to Orange County for a $150,000 grant for next year’s festival, APEC has been spending more than it’s been taking in for years. Current figures covering October 2010 through July 2011 reveal a net income deficit of $90,158. That, and not Nathiri’s personality, is responsible for the overhaul, Wyche says.

“We had over 10,000 people, for example, at the Ashford & Simpson concert last year, and yet we’ve lost money,” he says. “There’s something wrong with that formula.”

Attendance has been on the decline for the festival – at its peak it brought in as many as 100,000 people to a town of just 3,000 residents; by 2008, that number had decreased to 25,000 – leading Wyche and his cohorts to reassess not just the board’s revenues but also the festival’s programming.

“We’re bringing in that festival talent, if you will,” Wyche says. “We also have financial folks on our team; senior managers in private industry are on the team as well. So we’ve got a nice cross-section of folks that are coming in and saying, ‘What are we doing? How can we do it better? How can we do it smarter?’”

That also means working more closely with Eatonville’s mayor and the town council in a way that the board hadn’t quite been able to in the past. Nathiri’s involvement remains vital, though, according to Wyche. (Nathiri could not be reached for this story.)

“It was her dream,” he says. “And you know what? While we like to think of ourselves as creative folks, we’re not artistically creative. It was really critical to have that as a continuing part of our organization. I welcome her involvement and I welcome her continued leadership in the organization.”

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