Between Mother Nature and Father Smiley, PVDFest had some lame parents last weekend.
Yes, part of it was uncontrollable. There was no way to predict that torrential downpours were going to interfere with the city’s signature arts festival on Saturday afternoon and almost completely wash out Sunday’s performances. We’ll write that off as bad luck.
But Mayor Brett Smiley’s decision to overhaul large parts of the festival – like the time of year, location, and a ban on visitors carrying around alcoholic beverages outside of a roped-off area on the I-195 land – set a tone months ago that this was not going to be the same PVDFest that was almost universally beloved by artists, residents, and tourists over the past decade.
He got his wish.
PVDFest sure was different this year. But it definitely wasn’t better.
Friday night on the old I-195 land was well-lit, but pretty empty compared to previous years when tens of thousands of patrons each June descended on the Kennedy Plaza area and Washington and Westminster Streets near City Hall.
Saturday was a beautiful day (before a late-afternoon thunderstorm), but the whole event felt more like an elevated farmer’s market than a festival that once had ambitions of being a lighter version of South by Southwest. On the bright side, for those who stuck around after the rain, Mavis Staples delivered a typically brilliant performance.
Behind the scenes, though, there was ample frustration. Food truck owners say the layout was a disaster, forcing patrons to walk longer distances to buy lunch and dinner. They also complained about the city hiking license fees, which of course was passed on to customers. Other vendors said the weather left them with thousands of dollars in damaged merchandise.
The artist lineup felt jumbled, and didn’t come with the same promotion as it had in previous years. That left talented artists, like local rapper Flawless Real Talk, performing in front of tiny crowds. Flawless has a music video with 1.6 million views on YouTube. The crowd on Saturday afternoon during his set was maybe 100 people, if that.
On his popular podcast, musician Bill Bartholomew, who doubles as a political journalist in Rhode Island, said the entire vibe of the event was off.
“PVDFest served as a real-time example of what happens when you take an intersection of every community, every neighborhood, every peer group, every aspect of our city, and put them together in one place to share space, share ideas, share culture, share experience, and have a truly magical at least day, if not full weekend,” Bartholomew said.
He continued: “This year, it was not that.”
So what happened?
When I talked to Smiley this week, he was quick to point to the poor weather, but he said he has heard from plenty of residents who enjoyed the festival.
“It’s not a universal consensus opinion, but I take feedback very seriously,” Smiley said.
Smiley initially said businesses would not be allowed to hold block parties during PVDFest, which were common when former mayor Jorge Elorza was running the show. Smiley ended up allowing those parties on the first night of the festival, but with much of the festival moved from downtown to the so-called Knowledge District a few blocks away, the parties weren’t a hit.
Smiley said he was concerned that some of the restaurants and bars closer to City Hall didn’t see benefits from the festival. He said “no changes are permanent,” but didn’t offer any immediate changes that he’d like to make.
I’ve got one idea, which I floated by the mayor: Bring back Elorza.
That doesn’t mean he needs to hire Elorza, who is making plenty of money running Democrats for Education Reform, a national nonprofit that advocates for charter school expansion. But Smiley could engage Elorza as permanent chairman of the festival, and it might win back some of the artist community that Smiley says chose not to participate after he announced his changes to the event.
“What the previous administration did well was build a relationship with those artists,” Smiley said. “Maybe he could help with that.”
What Elorza actually did well was that he cared deeply about the festival, and he made it a priority.
It was part of his eight-year legacy as mayor. He traveled to events like South by Southwest and the New Orleans Jazz Festival to get a better feel for what PVDFest could be. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he sought to add programming to the event so it wasn’t just music and art. He envisions panel discussions and big-picture conversations about the future of cities.
On weekend nights during previous PVDFests, you could find Elorza wandering around downtown – even wearing a mayoral sash during the first year of the festival in 2015 – truly enjoying his city. He always compared being the mayor to being the cheerleader-in-chief, and during PVDFest, there was no greater champion of the Creative Capital.
Smiley and Elorza have very different styles as mayor, and one of the reasons Smiley has largely been praised during his first year in office is that he has focused relentlessly on quality-of-life issues (like those damn ATVs) that seemed to fall by the wayside under Elorza.
Improving PVDFest is a different kind of quality-of-life issue, and as he begins planning for 2024, Smiley’s first call should be to the guy who founded it, nurtured it, and made it a success.