For 28 years the Living Traditions Festival has become both the kickoff event to the SLC festival season and a pseudo-guide for how turnout will be at all the events to come. --- The annual cultural festival will take over Washington Square starting tomorrow, bringing the valley a taste both figuratively and literally of the diverse performing arts and foods residing in Utah. Today we chat with Jesse Schaefer of the Salt Lake Arts Council to talk about his career and joining the organization, planning out the festival, plans for this year and a few other topics. (All photos courtesy of the Salt Lake Arts Council.)
Gavin: Hey Jesse, first thing, tell us a bit about yourself.
Jesse: Well, let’s see... I am born and raised in downtown Salt Lake City, attended West High and currently live in the Poplar Grove neighborhood just west of downtown with my wife Leah and daughter Hazel who is just over 11 weeks old. So sleep is at a premium at this point. I am an amateur musician, and play drums, a bit of guitar and also am honing my skills on the turntables.
Gavin: What first got you involved with the production side of events?
Jesse: I knew a few people who worked at the Sundance Film Festival and applied and got a job as a Production Assistant in November 2002, for the 2003 festival. At that point I was really just in need of a job and didn’t have any background in events whatsoever. It did appeal to me as an exciting field and also in supporting the arts.
Gavin: You have had an impressive resume prior to the Council, working for Sundance, Tribeca and other film festivals. What was it like for you being a part of those festivals every year?
Jesse: Really, really amazing. Crazy and incredibly stressful at times, but such vast experiences and truly unforgettable. Through my various travels and festivals I was very fortunate to meet and become friends with some really great people, a lot of whom have turned into lasting and lifelong friendships. Being a part of the behind the scenes side of these large scale events was such a fantastic experience and I am very lucky that I had the chance to be a part of them.
Gavin: Most recently you were working at Sundance 2014, how has it been for you being a part of that event for 13 years now?
Jesse: Well, I really owe a lot of gratitude to Sundance. I started working there with basically no experience or knowledge in the field of event production, but through Sundance I really grew up literally and professionally and learned a great deal about the business. They will always be a part of me, without question.
Gavin: How did you end up working for the SLC Arts Council and eventually become the Program Manager?
Jesse: I worked seasonally as a Production Assistant for Sundance from 2003-05, and at the same time came aboard the Arts Council in the off-season in 2003 as a PA for the Living Traditions Festival and then as a stage manager for the Twilight Concert Series from 2004-06. The Production Manager position for the Arts Council’s events became available in the spring of 2007 and it was a great opportunity for me.
Gavin: For those who may not be familiar, give us a brief history of the Living Traditions Festival?
Jesse: The first festival took place at This Is The Place State Park in May 1986. The Salt Lake City Arts Council had been approached by a group called the Prairie Ship Liberty that was traveling from the west to east coast with a large art installation that looked like an old-time sailing ship. They were setting up the installation at several stops along the way. At each stop of the "ship," the artists asked the local community to put together an ethnic festival to celebrate America's diversity. The festival was a success and continued for the next few years at the same location until moving to the Sal Lake City & County Building in 1990 where it has been ever since.
Gavin: Living Traditions is usually the first big downtown festival that kicks off the summer. What kind of an impact do you believe this festival has compared to others that run that season?
Jesse: Well, that in itself is a great lure for people I think, the fact that it is the first large festival of the season which is always enticing. But really the fact that it is the only cultural celebration festival of its size and type in the state along with the free admission, makes it a special event different from all the others.
Gavin: Considering the kind of diversity the festival incorporates, what kind of a challenge is it to fully represent as many cultural entities as possible?
Jesse: Well it is absolutely a challenge, trying to ensure that as many of the various cultures within our community are represented. But I think that is a very positive sign, in that we have such a large amount of groups and organizations inquiring to be a part of it. We are very lucky to have really amazing folklorists, Craig Miller and Carol Edison, work with us to help program the performing artists and craft vendors. Their vast experience, knowledge and close relationships with the local ethnic and folk arts community is such an incredible asset.
Gavin: What's the process like in setting up the festival over the course of the year?
Jesse: Well, a tremendous amount of work as you can expect. It begins with identifying new elements that we might be able to incorporate, which mostly is in regards to the programming, headline artists, etc. Identifying ways that we can make improvements to the overall experience. Then on to all the logistical and execution planning, and that takes the majority of the efforts.
Gavin: How do you go about choosing performing acts and how best to balance each stage?
Jesse: With the headline artists we look to incorporate nationally and internationally recognized artists who represent culturally traditional music elements, but that also blend with newer styles and creative elements. We feel it is important to also include younger generations in that audience and to pass on the understanding and respect for those traditions. We work hard to ensure that the stages are balanced and well represented with the various local artists and their styles. Really it’s just splitting them evenly as much as we can over the three stages.
Gavin: The biggest highlight for many is the food available at the fest and the wide selection brought in every year. How do you choose who to bring in as part of that area?
Jesse: Yes, the food is always very sought after and one of the more exciting attractions. We look to include a wide range of options and as many different cultures represented as possible, given who we have in the pool of applicants. Most importantly the groups we include need to be a part of a non-profit organization where the funds they collect over the festival will be used to directly support arts programs within their respective communities. We also want to make sure that the menu’s they provide are diverse and well executed.
Gavin: Considering how popular it has become, have you ever considered expanding the festival or changing locations?
Jesse: We feel that the location is perfect for the festival, both size and location, and do not have any plans to move. Expanding it physically isn’t on our horizon, but we are looking at creative ways to enhance the onsite experience at the festival and are excited to see what those options may be.
Gavin: This year officially marks the 28th anniversary of the festival. How is it for both the Council and the festival heads to be going this long?
Jesse: It’s a great accomplishment, for those that have been involved for the whole time and put forth the efforts from year to year. Also the support that it has received from the community, both the local organizations involved in the festival as well as the patrons, is paramount. Obviously, we are very happy that it made it over the years and continues to this day. I have only been part of the festival for about ten years now but have attended it since the beginning as a child.
Gavin: What are some of the highlight attractions of this year's festival?
Jesse: This year we are adding a third stage to the west side of the grounds, which will be programmed with performing artists on all 3 days of the festival. We have more than 30 new local performing artists this year, for a total of about 70, which is fantastic. We have two national touring headline artists that we are very excited about – Friday night will be Red Baraat from Brooklyn (north Indian bhangra music mixed w/ New Orleans jazz/funk/go-go) and Sunday evening we have Quetzal from Los Angeles, CA (Grammy award winning Latino roots rock, with Cuban and Brazilian influences). We are also excited to have five new crafts vendors and three new food groups this year. Please visit our website for more details and schedules.
Gavin: What can we expect from both yourself and the Council over the rest of the year?
Jesse: Well, we program and produce the Twilight Concert Series in July and August in Pioneer Park and also the Brown Bag Concert Series, a lunchtime concert series at various downtown locations featuring a great assortment of local artists. It a great summer full of all sorts of good stuff!
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