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LVEDC Q&A: ArtsQuest’s Kassie Hilgert Discusses Musikfest, Impact of Coronavirus

By Colin McEvoy on June 26, 2020

The Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC) is led by a Board of Directors with expertise that represents a broad cross-section of the regional economy. Among them is Kassie Hilgert, President & CEO of ArtsQuest.

In this interview, Hilgert discusses how the coronavirus pandemic has affected ArtsQuest, the changes to Musikfest this year, and how ArtsQuest and the regional arts community will help Lehigh Valley recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

Below is also a brief video interview with Hilgert, which was recorded during a Zoom conversation due to quarantine and social distancing measures.

Can you speak about the impact the coronavirus pandemic and mitigation efforts have had on ArtsQuest specifically, and on the region’s arts & entertainment sector overall?

Hilgert: It’s no secret the nonprofit arts and the live events industries, like many others, have been hit hard by this pandemic and related closures. Americans for the Arts recently reported that financial losses to nonprofit arts organizations are estimated to be $5.5 billion and growing.

ArtsQuest has definitely been impacted by the COVID-19 related shutdowns. We normally present 4,000-plus programs and events for the community, including 800 free concerts year-round. In mid-March, we went overnight from planning a busy summer schedule to not being able to offer a single piece of programming, losing 90 percent of revenue streams in the blink of an eye.

The silver lining in all this is we have developed a variety of new and virtual programming that will stay with us long after the crisis ends. In addition, a number of our corporate partners and ArtsQuest members and donors have stepped up to help during this time of crisis. There are 30 corporate partners who are still supporting Musikfest this year because they know the impact the festival has had on our community over the past 36 years. For that, we are very appreciative.

When the closures and quarantines began, ArtsQuest began offering cultural, educational, and entertainment programming available virtually through its ArtsQuest @ Home program. How was the community response been to that?

Hilgert: One of the challenges our staff embraced immediately after the state’s shutdown order went into effect was shifting from in-person programming to finding creative ways to keep our community connected through the arts while sheltering at home. Even though everyone was in their own “bubble,” the benefits of the arts were needed more than ever.

Our programming teams did a tremendous job adapting on the fly and coming up with a wide variety of virtual programming in the music, arts, comedy, cinema and education spheres in just two weeks. To date, we’ve presented more than 500 different programs via [email protected], and over the past three months we’ve received great response from the community, hearing from students, teachers, our ArtsQuest Members, patrons and even local and regional government officials in regard to the programming. We’ve had people from as far as California make donations to help support us after seeing our events online, so this new model has also helped us take our arts programming well beyond the Lehigh Valley.

All these factors came together and provided us with the tools and understanding we needed to feel confident we could take the nation’s largest free music festival and recreate it virtually this year. Developing digital programming, along with the new technologies we discovered and the skills that staff have learned, will benefit us and our community long after the COVID-19 crisis is over.

Can you talk about the plans for Musikfest this year, and the different approach that’s being taken due to the unusual public health circumstances?

Hilgert: First and foremost, we are absolutely thrilled we are still able to present a ‘Musikfest’ this year, especially when you see so many other music festivals and events cancelling or postponing due to the pandemic. Musikfest 2020 will be a mostly virtual experience, but as we move through the green phase of the state’s reopening process, we may be able to announce some in-person elements at the SteelStacks campus, including small live performances.

The 2020 festival will include 40 performances shown via Musikfest.org as part of Virtual Musikfest; 40 performances by bands performing live from the Service Electric TV studios and then streaming on our site; and an on-site food and beverage experience at SteelStacks that includes at least 10 Musikfest food vendors.

We’re also offering a virtual Musikfest 5K, art activities and looking at different ways we can have artisans, vendors and other small businesses take part in the festival. We’ve also launched the “Together, We Will Fest Again” campaign, inviting the community to support us via donations and contributions that will go directly toward the 2020 festival, local artists and the return of Musikfest in 2021.

What is most interesting about the streaming component of Musikfest is we will be able to reach, literally, the world. Our hope is that we are able to showcase Bethlehem and the Lehigh Valley and get people excited to visit when we are once again able to offer large scale festivals and events in person. Studies are showing that there is demand to travel, although much of that travel could be to smaller cities like those found in the Lehigh Valley. This is a timely way to introduce Bethlehem to people who may have never considered visiting before.

As we move toward reopening, what role do you believe the region’s arts sector will play in Lehigh Valley’s economic recovery, especially with what your organization brings the region in terms of talent attraction and economic development?

Hilgert: The arts have a huge impact on cities and communities of all sizes from coast to coast. Arts and cultural nonprofits play a key role in economic development, supporting tourism and community revitalization. A few years ago, Americans for the Arts released its Economic Prosperity Study, which showed the Lehigh Valley’s arts sector added $186 million to the region’s economy.

When people attend concerts, plays, comedy shows and festivals, there’s a huge spillover effect. Patrons stay in area hotels, eat in restaurants, visit shops and stores in our downtowns and they often return to the area at other times of the year as well.

The most important thing right now is providing opportunities for these small independent venues and nonprofits to reopen their doors and resume doing what they do best, bringing the community together through shared music, arts and cultural experiences.

We at ArtsQuest are excited to move into the green phase of the Commonwealth’s reopening process, which will allow us to start opening aspects of our organization for the community including the ArtsQuest Center and Banana Factory. We’ll take our first steps with a small July 4th event outdoors at SteelStacks on Independence Day Weekend and continue adding in programming over the coming weeks when and where we can follow the health and safety guidelines from the state and city.

The arts will be critical in helping to resume a more normal life and more than ever, the arts can be a creative differentiator to recruit employers and employees to the Lehigh Valley. However, we can’t do it alone; we will need the support of the private and public sectors. If the support of so many of our sponsors, elected officials and ArtsQuest Members is any indication, I suspect there will be more who will step forward to help during our time of crisis.

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