SPARKcon’s crisis is overat least for now. Raleigh’s annual open-source arts festival, founded in 2006 and run by arts nonprofit VAE Raleigh for the last eight years, will fill downtown with a wide array of programming as usual Sep. 13–16. But at the start of August, SPARKcon’s funding was $22,500 short of its operating budget, and its sponsors were markedly down from last year. VAE almost blinked.
“I was just going, ‘Crap, we’re not going to make this,’” says Brandon Cordrey, VAE’s executive director.
But rather than canceling or postponing, he launched a crowdfunding campaign to make up the difference. By August 21, VAE had raised enough to meet SPARKcon’s $65,299 general operating budget, which was pared down from $89,000 for the 2017 festival. For a four-day event that reportedly drew eighty-four thousand people and had a $2.3 million economic impact downtown last year, that’s a lot of bang for the buck. More than two thousand artists are involved in more than two hundred events this year.
There’s no one easy answer to why VAE came up so short. Costs are rising. Programming is expanding. Sponsors are shifting their support around. The city, VAE’s biggest funder, hasn’t released its annual support monies yet. VAE covers the festival’s infrastructure: portable toilets, road closures, parking spaces, City Plaza rental, insurance, tents, signage, permit fees, an accessibility contractor, security, and a fire department presence, because circusSPARK puts fire dancers in the middle of Fayetteville Street.
“It’s mostly slight, annual increases in lots of things,” Cordrey says. “It all adds up over time.”
At press time, VAE’s still-active GoFundMe had raised $9,465 toward a $14,000 goal, which would exceed SPARKcon’s basic needs. Cordrey was able to lower the goal twice during the short campaign, after Raleigh City Council allocated $5,000 from a contingency fund and local company MDO Holdings stepped up with an open-ended sponsorship. He’s relieved but cautious.
“SPARKcon is big, so there’s an inherent risk,” he says. “But there’s also the benefit of people doing things that they don’t get to do on that scale, for that many people, in any other scenario. We need to make sure this platform is solid for whatever size it needs to be.”