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November 8, 2011 | last updated December 2, 2011 5:52 pm
Portlandbiz

New performing arts festival planned for Portland

Photo/Rebecca Goldfine
Photo/Rebecca Goldfine
Kara Larson is organizing next summer's performing arts center festival

Bangor has a three-day folk festival. Waterville, L-A and Camden have multi-day international film festivals. And though Portland has its Portland Chamber Music Festival, PORT Opera festival, the one-day Old Port Festival, PICNIC Music + Arts Festival and some smaller film series, Kara Larson still thinks there's something missing.

"So many people say Portland needs a festival, that a festival is welcome here," she says. "It's something that's been bubbling in the cultural cauldron for years apparently."

To fill the void, Larson is planning the inaugural Portland Performing Arts Festival next summer. To start, she's developing four days of acts. But going forward, she envisions the festival offering two weeks of events, ranging from "intimate acoustic performances to sprawling site-specific events," including dance, theater, chamber concerts, outdoor jazz shows, art installations, spoken-word performances, etc.

"What I really want to do is to bring performances that people in Portland or Maine wouldn't have a chance to see," she says, and "create a reason for cultural tourists to come to Portland."

"We think it is really exciting," says Jan Beitzer, executive director of Portland's Downtown District. "This could over the next decade grow into a spectacular event of the arts."

Larson predicts that in its first year, the festival could attract 1,500 audience members, mostly from southern Maine. As the festival grows, and its reputation builds, she's hoping to draw 5,000 people the second year, from a larger radius, and 10,000 to 15,000 visitors in its third year and beyond.

"If we can grow this beyond the first couple of years," she says, "the economic impact will be a function of people coming and staying here. No one can be in a performance hall for more than four hours. That leaves 20 hours for them to be enlivening the local economy."

A few other cities, such as Charleston, S.C., Edinburgh, Scotland, and Toronto have multi-day performance art festivals, some of them going back decades. In 2005, Charleston's 34-year-old Spoleto Festival USA, a 17-day, 120-performance event attracted about 39,000 visitors and made a $55 million economic impact, according to a six-year-old economic development study commissioned by Spoleto, the most recent data available.

Larson says her year-one budget is roughly $180,000 and she has so far raised $25,000, with a goal of $70,000 by year's end. Ticket sales will bring in about $50,000, she predicts. Year two, she's looking at a $336,000 budget, with ticket sales earning an estimated $123,000.

Portland's 2012 performing arts festival will take place June 28 to July 1. Tickets go on sale in March for an as-yet undetermined price, according to Larson. Larson has already booked the acts, including Sharon Isbin, a classical guitarist, and Alison Chase, a contemporary-dance choreographer based in Maine. Performers will use downtown venues such as Portland Stage, Port City Music Hall, SPACE Gallery and the State Theatre.

"In order to drive significant cultural tourism, [the festival] has to grow to be at least 10 days," Larson says. "What I want to do is have the gravitas to have a significantly larger audience, and for that I have to have performers with national or international recognition."

Larson, who moved to Maine last year to get married, has a background in the business side of the arts. She's worked as project director for the National Council for the Traditional Arts in the D.C. area, and been the marketing director for New York's Glimmerglass Festival. She's also worked for the San Francisco Opera and Carolina Performing Arts, the latter a $6 million, 50-event performing arts series in North Carolina. She also has her own consulting business for the performing arts.

"I've been in places where arts and cultural events have been a significant driver of the economy," Larson says. "What can be helpful is if someone creates an event that draws people and tourists all at one time; it creates a nucleus. And other arts organization can use it to further their own aims without risk."

She hopes that Portland's arts organizations will use the festival to plan simultaneous events to add to the general air of festivity. "What we're asking is that if organizations are planning to present something during the festival to let us know," she says, and they will be added to the published schedule of events.

"My goal is for anyone who comes into the Arts District to have a sense that something is happening everywhere, that you're surrounded by arts activity," Larson says.

Editor's note: This article was amended to add the Portland Chamber Music Festival and the PORT Opera festival.

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