Three years in, Art of Cool Festival cofounder and director Cicely Mitchell admits this is something of a make-or-break year. As with many such upstarts, the multiday, multivenue jazz-and-soul eventwhich filled the festival void for Durham after it went a half-decade without onehas never broken even, in spite of steadily increasing revenues.

A biostatistician by day, Mitchell has never taken a salary from the event and, alongside her parents, has invested more than $75,000 into it. If the festival can’t become solvent in May, she says she may pause Art of Cool or move it outside of Durhama city that, especially this year, has given the event something of a cool reception.

“Like every year, we’re definitely going to evaluate the festival,” she says with a sigh. “We’ll see what our options are to continue it.”

In late March, during a city council work session, Mitchell took a necessary step toward staying. She made a plea for more money$20,000which would help her cut fewer corners on things like artist hospitality and move toward profitability in the final weeks before Art of Cool begins.

It was her second time asking the city for money for this year’s event. Months earlier, she had requested $20,000 from Durham’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, but she was given only a quarter of it, $5,000$3,000 less than the previous year and $3,250 less than the event’s inaugural edition. Last year, the county denied Art of Cool’s separate $5,000 request, which commissioner Wendy Jacobs attributes to a lack of new available funds for nonprofits like Art of Cool. Mitchell was disappointed, but Art of Cool had always been a bootstrap operation, an unpaid labor of love.

So she pressed on, at least until learning that the city’s new festival recruit, Moogfest, was seeking $62,500 from the city and a matching amount from Durham County. That was more than five times what Art of Cool had received from either in three years combined, and the for-profit Moogfest seemed poised to get it, based on economic-impact projections of around $7 million. Those public dollars would fund free festival programming, including an outdoor electronic concert for children, synthesizer workshops, and an interactive LED display in CCB Plaza.

During a public comment period after Moogfest’s March presentationin which the festival boasted that 60 percent of its attendees had a household income of more than $100,000Mitchell stepped to the podium. Her voice cracked nervously during her first-ever talk before the council.

“We are very grassroots, but the lineup that we claim is of national and international acclaim,” Mitchell told the council. “Our audience breakdown really reflects the population here in Durham: sixty-six percent is African-American, twenty-four percent is white-Caucasian.”

Step by step, she explained the costs necessary to upfit the Durham Armory, an eighty-year-old, city-owned space. She would need to expand the stage, add light and sound systems, and rent a generator to power them all. The council responded enthusiastically, with Mayor Bill Bell and council member Steve Schewel agreeing that Art of Cool merited more city support.

Still, for nearly a month, Mitchell heard nothing. After a mid-April meetingwith the festival set to begin May 6even council member Jillian Johnson said she didn’t know if the item would come up in time, as it had yet to appear on an agenda.

Two days later, city manager Thomas Bonfield seemed perplexed by the question.

“Yes, Art of Cool will get those funds. They have been approved,” Bonfield told the INDY, explaining that the city council doesn’t need to vote on appropriations of less than $50,000. “We have not finalized the paperwork yet.”

Less than an hour later, Mitchell and Johnson both reached out to share news that their festival and their council, respectively, had yet to hear. On Monday night, Mitchell returned to the county commissioners to ask them to match this $20,000. Despite turning down her earlier $5,000 request, they agreed.


Bonfield’s delayed response was but the latest indication of a flawed process that hasn’t kept up with the city’s growth.

“People are rightly concerned that, with this explosion of development, we’re going to pave over what makes [Durham] so appealingits diversity,” says Farnum Brown, who joined Art of Cool’s board of directors after seeing the way the festival energized downtown during its first year. “Having a festival that is becoming a national destination for fans of black American music is a great way to promote and highlight that diversity. And Moogfest just isn’t going to do that.”

Moogfest director Marisa Brickman, who declined to be interviewed, said in a written statement: “Our mission is to establish Moogfest as a platform that can shine a light on Durham’s vibrant community, the history, and the ambitions that make this such a great place.”

Still, the situation has prompted allegations of racism and confusion about how city and county finances work. To wit, the Durham blog Bull City Rising issued two alternate takes on the issue, one pinpointing racial inequity and the other taking a more conciliatory tone by diving into the numbers. Longtime city council member Cora Cole-McFadden says there is a “racial connotation” to the funding process and calls it favoritism, noting that Art of Cool is led by a black woman and Moogfest by a white woman. But Adam Klein, the chief strategist for American Underground, which sponsors both events, wouldn’t mention race at all when asked if he considered it a factor in the way the events had been funded.

Maybe it’s a little of both, then, each exacerbated by a city both drunk on and punch-drunk from rapid growthand the compulsion to build an event, like Moogfest, that serves as a magnet for savvy young (and largely white) professionals.

“It’s a variation of the grass is always greener, or the expert is from out of town,” says Ashley Capps, whose company, the Southeast booking giant AC Entertainment, produced Moogfest for three years. “What is homegrown or grassroots is often underappreciated by community leadership, taken for granted. There is a tendency to go for the new and shiny.”


Ahead of the move, the festival made connections with American Underground and its parent company, Capitol Broadcasting Company. Less than two weeks after Moogfest made the move official, Casey Steinbacher, the head of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce for eight years, announced her resignation. She soon started working under contract for Moogfest, helping to link the festival with money from area businesses and local governments.

“One of my roles is to help ensure that Durham help [Moogfest] be successful through sponsorships and engagement,” Steinbacher says.

She’s done exactly that. Moogfest’s matrix of sponsors and partnersfrom long-term agreements with Research Triangle Park and Capitol Broadcasting Company to multiple alcohol and hotel contractsis the most exhaustive, impressive network among all current Triangle festivals. There are shoe sponsors and software partners, “friends of Moogfest” and a “community investment consortium.” If Moogfest fails, it will not be for lack of extended tendrils; funds from the city and county represent just two components of a funding pool that includes major international corporations and chains.

Funding for Art of Cool, meanwhile, has languished. Its sponsorship roster is slim, despite a current revenue projection by the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau of $1.6 million. Based upon expected attendance increases and a reconfigured festival format, that estimate nearly triples figures from Art of Cool’s first two years.

Even American Tobacco Campus, which sponsored Art of Cool in its first year, dithered on whether to be Art of Cool’s title sponsor this year, only agreeing to do so in January, four months after the festival announced its lineup and a month after the

INDY pointed out the ATC’s downgraded role. At least at first, Mitchell found less money on the public and private fronts, despite her rising revenue projections.

Mitchell laments that many of the companies and institutions she pitched repeatedly over the yearsincluding the city and countyare the same ones that have so eagerly enlisted with Moogfest. In many cases, Mitchell takes the blame, as she’s had to build networks and learn how to navigate bureaucracy. She just wonders why, for Moogfest, that network is ready-made.

“We paved the way,” she says. “We were down there with the hatchet so others can walk on through. That’s how it feels.”

Indeed, Durham’s enthusiastic embrace of Moogfest has suggested that city leaders, from government officials to the Goodmons of Capitol Broadcasting Company, are eager to build a Bull City event that promotes a tech-embracing, high-brow brand. But just as Durham seems to want Moogfest, Moogfest needs Durham.

Launched in 2004 as an annual one-day concert in a Manhattan club to honor synthesizer pioneer Bob Moog, Moogfest maintained that minimal format for five years before tanking attendance caused organizers to reconsider. Two years later, Moog Music partnered with AC Entertainment, the Southeast booking agency that also coproduces Bonnaroo, to relaunch the event in Asheville, Moog’s longtime home.

That arrangement lasted for three years and perennially lost money until, in 2013, Moog Music pulled the plug and decided to rebuild it as a composite music festival and tech summit.

This new version tanked, too, losing $1.5 million and prompting organizers to ask Buncombe County for $250,000 to help power the next edition. In May 2014, less than a month after that year’s festival, a county board unanimously rejected the application; rumors of the festival’s move to Durham began to spread four months later. The network of Bull City partners was already forming.

The city, meanwhile, never asked Moogfest for its past financial records. Bonfield says they aren’t required if an event has “a track record and a legitimate organization structure.” Durham began putting most of its eggs in what has, to date, seemed like a broken basket, all the while pivoting away from the Art of Cool.

“City officials are tying into Durham’s identity as a tech hub, and because Moogfest is an electronic festival, that makes sense. That is a legitimate aspect of our town’s identity to highlight,” says Brown. “But it’s not the only one. And if it were, you’d be missing out on a lot of why Durham is special.”


The first decision wasn’t about race, he says, just as the move to revisit Art of Cool and reward an extra $20,000 wasn’t appeasement. Aside from that, he can’t say.

What Bonfield does know is that the process must improve now that Durham is recruiting and generating more events. During the next budget cycle, he says, the city will set aside $200,000 for such festivals, then hone the process of distributing that money by using more data and better analysis to determine what events are generating revenue and what events have the most accesible components.

These decisions stem in part from economic impact estimates, formulated for the city by Durham’s visitors bureau. Moogfest’s funding numbers stem from the Asheville festival, whose financial losses partly prompted its move to Durham. Better defining and refining the process and the numbers that drive it, Bonfield says, is the best way to prevent these problems from reoccurring.

“The inconsistencies of funding for all the events that the city has funded over the years, some longer than others, we need to get our arms around that,” he says. “Before we give anybody money next year, we’re going to evaluate what’s an appropriate contribution for the city. It has nothing to do with race. It has nothing to do with diversity.”

Bonfield is right: the system does need to be overhauled. In the last year, its ambiguities have left too many onlookers skeptical, perhaps even fearful that Durham is trying too hard to engineer how its downtown audience looks, how it thinks, what it hears. Despite talk of economic development, it’s hard not to see the disproportionate math and the open-and-closed doors as an attempt to whitewash Durham’s events.

For Jillian Johnson, it’s important not just to empower black-owned events in Durham but to advocate for them, especially in a city whose center grows evermore expensive. Johnson says the city council can only do so much to control gentrification; the choice about which cultural events to support and foster is a crucial one.

“We’ve spent a ton of money on high-rise hotels or this giant tower on Main Street. Most of this money is not going to create a downtown where lower-income people and people of color feel welcome,” she says. “Putting some investment into programs like Art of Cool is a way to balance that a little bit.”

Johnson says that, in the past three years, Art of Cool has been nickel-and-dimed into accepting paltry sums, while this year, Moogfest got just what it asked for. That, she says, is no way to treat one festival that set the stage for the other.

“Keeping a black-led, Durham-indigenous music festival in downtown and helping it be successful is something that is important,” she says. “Having an inclusive festival downtown is a way to hold on to some of that diversity. There are aspects of our communitylike that diversity and inclusivenessthat cannot be reflected in an economic-impact analysis.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Headliner Status”