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Sunday, February 5, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Opinion -- Bumbershoot Is In Trouble; Here's How To Fix It

Bumbershoot, which has contributed so much to Seattle's artistic vitality, is an arts festival in trouble.

The directors don't seem to appreciate the rut they're in, or the depth of disappointment for a festival that has become formulaic and compromised.

This isn't the time for typical Seattle politeness. The annual Labor Day weekend event is too important to allow its artistic authority and freewheeling nature to be squandered.

The time is right for an overhaul because the city is relinquishing its funding and oversight roles to an "independent nonprofit organization." Bumbershoot is being privatized, and will in essence be "owned" by Norm Langill and his One Reel organization, who have produced Bumbershoot the past 15 years. Although freedom from the city's inflexible procedures will be welcome, there's little sense that the change will do anything but accelerate Bumbershoot's decline into a money-driven music fest guided largely by market forces.

Ironically, it was this very threat that rallied the arts community in 1985 in support of One Reel as producer, instead of Media One, a rock promoter. Now virtually every artist I've talked with - whether painter, poet or performer - is critical of One Reel's leadership. There hasn't been a great Bumbershoot in years. The festival that contributed gravity racers and Kabuki to Seattle has lost its way.

Some serious thinking needs to occur in the next month or two as One Reel gears up for the next Bumbershoot and the festival's 25th anniversary.

There are three avenues to pursue.

-- First, extend the length of the festival. This would shake up everything, and allow for exciting new possibilities. Some big-draw performers such as Bonnie Raitt could be scheduled before the Labor Day weekend. Charge something like a regular price. Festival-goers weary of bad acoustics, short sets and long waits would likely be glad to pay more for a concert with a guaranteed seat and decent sound. Then the Labor Day weekend could be reserved for local talent, and general free-for-all populist activities. One ticket could get you into both the concert and one day of the weekend. Ticket prices for the weekend could thus be stabilized or even reduced.

If the festival were longer, events such as last year's extraordinary literary arts lineup could better receive the attention they deserve, and audiences would have more time to enjoy more of the festival. It would also encourage enterprising individuals to undertake serious creative efforts.

A longer festival also would be easier to produce, and less vulnerable to economic misfortunes due to bad weather.

-- Second, decentralize and downsize. There's no reason the festival must be chained to the Seattle Center, with its operating costs and other restrictions. Events could take place in other venues and neighborhoods. And there's no shame in allowing the festival to be smaller, with fewer expensive big names.

-- Third, perhaps most important, hire sub-producers. Langill, while undoubtedly creative, needs to give authority to others. There should be separate producers for the various arts fields. This will bring in lively new resources, and keep Bumbershoot in touch with the artistic pulse. There's a model for this already: Judith Roche and Louise DiLenge mostly call the shots for Bumbershoot's literary arts. Not coincidentally, these are among the best aspects of Bumbershoot, consistently thoughtful and daring.

Bumbershoot is under pressure because last year it lost money - some $400,000 - and attendance declined. The danger is real that Bumbershoot will cut the very things that make it unique. Instead, it should rediscover its roots as a festival with both real and symbolic importance for the arts, and as an unsanitized populist event that invites the whole city.

Change does not mean hiring Father Guido Sarducci to marry a few couples on a tarted-up stage outside the Bagley Wright Theatre. It means embracing structural changes, such as making the festival longer, and letting other people determine parts of the festival. These practical steps could begin this year and be completed over the next several years.

Philosophically, Bumbershoot's cupboard is bare. The rationale that better known acts draw in audiences who then take advantage of other offerings is no longer operative.

What should Bumbershoot look like in three years? More like Lollapalooza, or more like the three-week arts festival in Edinburgh?

Be bold. Make the Bumbershoot Arts Festival matter again.

David Berger is a Seattle writer and artist.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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