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June 7, 2012

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For the last few years one of Riverbend’s founders, Sid Hetzler, has been nibbling at the edges of that Chattanooga institution, publicly disputing the festival’s own chronology of its beginnings, which now seems to have been adjusted to conform to his account of its creation. With the publication of his book, “Two Town Festivals: Signs of a Theater of Power,” Hetzler is taking a bigger bite. Whether he’s latched onto an ankle or the jugular probably depends on where you stand on Riverbend.

The first part of the book is Hetzler’s 1990 doctoral dissertation comparing Riverbend and Charleston’s Spoleto USA, which was one of the models for Riverbend. When Riverbend was a gleam in the eyes of Hetzler and a few like minded activists, it was intended to be like Spoleto: a festival celebrating all the arts—both fine arts and popular, from classical to experimental, and including visual and other performing arts.

The baby that eventually emerged from the delivery room—midwifed by funding restrictions from the Lyndhurst Foundation and its consultant Gianni Longo—was something else entirely. It was primarily a popular music festival, and over the years, vestiges of the other arts like chamber music gradually disappeared.

The core of Hetzler’s book analyzes and compares Riverbend and Spoleto through the lens of semiotics. His analysis isn’t kind to Riverbend, but it’s primarily focused on understanding how festivals work. Later sections bring the story up to date with further developments in Riverbend, including this year’s near death of the Bessie Smith Strut, whose openness he says was the last vestige of the intended festival. It also tells Hetzler’s own fascinating post-Riverbend story in which he became an impresario of participatory festivals at his Split Tree Farm.

Riverbend and Spoleto illustrate Hetzler’s key idea that “differences embrace sameness; sameness rejects difference.”

“Charleston represented in Spoleto an idea of differences. Riverbend started that way but then turned into a very narrow set of programs. And then that narrowness, that sameness, rejected anything that didn’t fit it. It wasn’t a big tent, it was a little tent.”

He argues that festivals provide a model for accepting differences and diversity in life, with festival-goers learning to tolerate as normal the narrow or wide range of diversity presented within a festival’s time and space.

“A festival is a context. The people who put on a festival, whether they’re aware of it or not, are creating a context for things, a framing, a theater. What kind of context is Riverbend? It’s in the middle of a beautiful city. How much does it connect with its environment? It rejects it. It fences itself off.”

Spoleto celebrates a much wider variety of arts and styles, and its events are located throughout downtown Charleston, with attendees walking between venues and spending money in local restaurants and shops along the way. That festival tells a story about living in a city—or simply being alive—and it’s a story of differences. By presenting a narrow range of music and establishing a homogenous festival grounds in the midst of a vibrant downtown Riverbend tells a story of sameness.

Why does this matter? Because, Hetzler says (paraphrasing Winston Churchill), “We shape our festivals; thereafter our festivals shape us.” Sameness is not only boring but dangerous, because it suggests that the world is only what we already know, with no room for discovery, for new ideas or for people that are not like us.

“I hope there will be some more consciousness about sameness. What is its danger? What does it look like? What masks does it wear? Is Riverbend diverse or is it narrow?”

Beyond the analytical thinking and the concern over historical accuracy, Hetzler seems to feel about Riverbend’s path not taken almost like an amputee feels a missing limb. If Chattanooga had done what Charleston did with Spoleto, how much further along the path of economic and cultural renewal might we have traveled by now?

by

June 7, 2012

Comments (3)

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Application beyond Riverbend

Since openness and diversity are good, obviously we should privatize Social Security and the public schools instead of trying to force everyone into one-size-fits-all systems like the current Riverbend.

(A minor idea to loosen Riverbend slightly: let people bring their own food and drinks, paying an entrance fee on what they bring.
And: try open gates one night, or a reasonable fee. And, unofficially, as Winder Binders is doing?, run an "off Riverbend" collection of events during Riverbend, mostly in the area near the festival. FWIW.)

Andrew Lohr more than 1 years ago

New book on Riverbend, Two Town Festivals

Rich Bailey's sharply focused editorial on my new book, "Two Town Festivals: Signs of a Theater of Power," hits the several nails of this complex work dead on the head in raising basic questions about the closed, fenced Riverbend Festival's value today to a newly revitalized downtown Chattanooga.

I very much admire his meeting the challenge of finding much of the essence of my 299 pages of what really is several books in one: the director's broad foreword with a brief author's note, the relatively brief 1990 thesis (online since 1996) with endnotes, two appendices of Chattanooga and Charleston's vivid stories of origin from the 1980s, and my 45-page afterword about the impact of the thesis ideas on my NW GA Split Tree Farm music and dance programs from 1990-2007.

Only one special idea was not emphasized in the article, and that is the fundamental value of hearing and seeing and feeling the power of all local artists, celebrating what the Charleston mayor long has called "art power." In this way festivals can be "theaters of power," or for theaters for the powerful, in framing private civic agendas. Under new leadership and qualified artistic direction, I can see an open Riverbend opening all its gates, spreading into all new and old venues and lively restaurants in the downtown, generating many thousands of "city walkers" as vital pedestrian traffic and at long last enhancing restaurant profits--a true "celebration of togetherness" as I originally called our fledging project in May 1981. And it can strengthen the fine new grass roots festivals, such as HATCH and New Dischord, and animate all the budding downtown areas from southside to northside to eastside, as happened in the early 80s.

I regret seeing the Bessie Smith Strut fenced in but wish it well as the last fragment of the open festival we started in 1982. I hope to see many friends there Monday night (or late afternoon now?). The book is now on Amazon and also Kindle and for sale at Winder Binder on Frazier between the bridges. I may bring some copies Monday night to share.

I thank my original three Friends of the Festival colleagues, Mickey Robbins, Deane and Nelson Irvine, and supporters such as Sally and Sam Robinson, for the volunteer energy that sustained the early organizing efforts, and the boards of directors that kept the dream of a world-class Chattanooga festival alive. It will happen when our dramatic place, artistic idea and professional direction reach critical mass with informed city leadership and create a summer-long town festival beyond our imagining today. Visit Edinburgh in August; you'll feel the magic and experience true diversity.

Sid Hetzler more than 1 years ago

ich Bailey's editorial on Hetzler's Festival Book

Rich Bailey's sharply focused editorial on my new book, "Two Town Festivals: Signs of a Theater of Power," hits the several nails of this complex work dead on the head in raising basic questions about the closed, fenced Riverbend Festival's value today to a newly revitalized downtown Chattanooga. I very much admire his meeting the challenge of finding much of the essence of my 299 pages of what really is several books in one: the director's erudite foreword with a brief author's note, the relatively brief 1990 thesis (online since 1996) with endnotes, two appendices of Chattanooga and Charleston's vivid stories of origin from the 1980s, and Hetzler 45-page afterword about the impact of the thesis ideas about diversity versus intolerant "theaters of power" on his Split Tree Farm music and dance programs from 1990-2007. I regret seeing the Bessie Smith Strut fenced in but wish it well as the last fragment of the open festival we started in 1982. I hope to see many friends there Monday night (or late afternoon now?). I would only add to Rich's crisp thoughts that I hope the book proves helpful to our civic leaders, politicians, patrons, festival directors and educators whose steady efforts are bringing positive attention at long last to Chattanooga, or at least since the post-civil war era. Only one special idea was not emphasized in the article, and that is the fundamental value of hearing and seeing and feeling the power of all local artists, celebrating what the Charleston mayor long has called "art power." I can see the Riverbend opening all its gates, spreading into all new venues and lively restaurants in the downtown, generating many thousands of "city walkers" as vital pedestrian traffic and at long last enhancing restaurant profits--a true "celebration of togetherness" as I originally called our fledging project in May 1981. The book is now on Amazon and also Kindle and for sale at Winder Binder on Frazier between the bridges. I may bring some copies Monday night to share. And let me thank my original three Friends of the Festival colleagues, Mickey Robbins, Deane and Nelson Irvine, and supporters such as Sally and Sam Robinson, for the volunteer energy that sustained the early organizing efforts, and the boards of directors that kept the dream of a world-class Chattanooga festival alive. It will happen when the dramatic place, artistic idea and force of professional talent reach critical mass with informed city leadership with a summer-long town festival beyond our imagining today. Visit Edinburgh; you'll know then.

Sid Hetzler more than 1 years ago

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