The journal of a Kentucky culture vulture
If the Ichthus Festival was going to go on, it had to go on.
Back in August, when we sat down with festival president and chief executive Mark Vermilion to talk about the financial difficulties that had put Ichthus in jeopardy, one of the possibilities he mentioned was Ichthus skipping its 2012 edition and coming back, “bigger and better in 2013.”
At the end of this year’s festival, Ichthus leaders announced the festival was in severe financial difficulties. They put the festival property, known as Ichthus Farm, up for sale with hopes to find a buyer who would lease it back to them for the annual Christian music event held each June but relieve Ichthus of the overhead costs of maintaining the 111-acre site in Wilmore.
If there was no sale, Vermilion said there was a good chance Ichthus 2012 wouldn’t happen.
Tuesday, Ichthus announced the festival would go on despite not selling the farm, citing positive momentum in fund-raising and belief that the property will be sold sometime soon. Vermilion had a much more frank view of that take-a-year off option.
“We were concerned that if we took a year off, some of those things that were moving in a positive direction might have to curtail, because there’s no fuel to drive them,” he said. “We were also concerned that if we took year 43 off that there would even be a year 44, because who knows if those folks who have been so loyal to the festival would take a year off and come back for year 44. Those are some unknowns that were concerns of ours.”
And he’s right. My colleagues and I struggled to conjure up any memories of entertainment organizations that closed down for significant periods of time and then actually came back “bigger and better than ever,” as is typically promised.
It can feel like a good thing to say, particularly if you’re looking at shutting down a major regional event that has been running more than four decades and was tremendous meaningful to a lot of people. It’s sort of like breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend and saying, “Oh, maybe we’ll get back together someday.” Actually, that probably has a better record of success than major arts and entertainment events trying to shut down and come back.
Closing down for a year is like putting a pin to the balloon of your event. It completely takes the air out of it, and try as you might, it is really hard to pump it back up.
Just think about this: Right now, the next Ichthus is nine months away. Not imminent, but close enough that die-hard fans can be a little excited and contributors can feel like they’ll see the results of their efforts soon.
The Ichthus Festival has not sold the farm, but it will continue with a full-fledged 2012 edition.
On the closing night of the 42nd annual Ichthus Festival in June, festival president and chief executive Mark Vermilion told the crowd that Ichthus Ministries was in financial straits that could force cancellation of future events. Two days later, the festival site in Wilmore known as Ichthus Farm was put up for sale, with organizers hoping to find a buyer who would lease the property back to Ichthus each June for the festival. The asking price began at $900,000, well below offers that the festival says it received from developers in the middle of the past decade.
On Tuesday afternoon, after a Monday meeting of Ichthus’ board, Vermilion said that the site has not been sold, but “there have been enough positive things happening in the last few months that we really felt like we could do a 43rd edition of the Ichthus Festival and do it with the same level of quality that we’ve always had at the festival. Once we knew we could do that, we were ready to pull the trigger.”
Vermilion said Ichthus is not out of the woods financially. He said the organization has radically reshaped its financial model, downsizing from five full-time staffers a few years ago to three part-timers now. They also have put a heavier emphasis on fund-raising. As for the property sale, Vermilion said, there have been discussions with a few potential buyers and there are hopes that a sale will be completed in four to six months.
“That would really reduce our overhead,” said Vermilion, who also teaches at Asbury University and is helping to launch its new center for cultural engagement.
Ichthus, which started at Asbury Seminary in 1970, moved to its current 111-acre home off U.S. 68 in Wilmore in 1999. At that time, the festival attracted 20,000 people a year. Recently, after moving the event from late April to June after repeated bouts with inclement early spring weather, crowds have been more modest, about 15,000. That’s due to the schedule change and to the changing dynamics of the Christian concert market, organizers said. The 2011 festival, Vermilion said, was the first edition in more than five years not to lose money.
WILMORE – The 2011 Ichthus Festival ended on a sobering note: Ichthus Ministries chief executive officer Mark Vermilion told the crowd that the festival site was going up for sale and that financial issues had put the 42-year-old event in jeopardy.
What festival organizers hoped, he said, was that a benevolent buyer would come forward and purchase the 111-acre site, relieving Ichthus of the mortgage and overhead costs of owning the property, and lease it back to Ichthus each year for the festival.
Today, the large yellow “for sale” signs he displayed onstage are nailed to the fence at the entrances to the festival site off U.S. 68 in Wilmore. Vermilion said there have been three or four discussions with potential buyers but no offers yet for the property, which has an asking price of $900,000.
“In the next six weeks, we’re going to get into significant layoffs and consider not doing a 2012 festival if things don’t change – if we don’t have donors that step up and help us through this season of need, or if we don’t sell the land,” Vermilion said while sitting in the gazebo at the Wilmore city park that was built after Ichthus gave the city a portion of its festival property. “Our board of directors will meet on Sept. 12 and make some hard decisions. In the meantime, we have the opportunity to see who’s really serious about helping us out.”
The festival’s financial situation is a result of a variety of factors, including a downturn in the economy and changes in the Christian concert and festival market. Since the festival moved from being held in late April to mid-June in 2006, each edition has lost money. That has made what once seemed like a great investment – a permanent site for the festival – into a crippling financial burden.
WILMORE — Like many 40-year-olds, folks around the Ichthus Festival don’t talk about its age much.
It’s particularly understandable in the case of the Wilmore Christian music festival, which presents its 40th edition Thursday through Saturday. It is, after all, a bastion of Christian pop culture, and pop culture is always focused on the young.
But Ichthus executive director Jeff James and CEO Mark Vermilion aren’t avoiding age out
of vanity — the Bible has a few things to say about that. No. It’s just that at 40, Ichthus is sharpening its focus on missions and youth ministry.
“The best way you can pay homage to a legacy is by building on it,” said Vermilion, who recently moved to Wilmore to take over the CEO post after working with Kingdom Building Ministries in Colorado. “Looking forward is a part of looking back.”
James observed, “What 40 years has provided us is a great springboard to the future.”
The way the festival officials see it, this is where God brought them, or maybe blew them, would be the more appropriate term.
Ichthus started in 1970 when Asbury Theological Seminary professor Bob Lyon encouraged his students to develop a Christian answer to Woodstock, the 1969 New York rock festival that would never be confused with a Baptist church service.
Starting when it did, the “Christian folk” festival actually preceded the pop genre known as contemporary Christian music. A handful of artists such as Larry Norman were starting to record faith-based rock, saying they were bored by traditional church music. One of Norman’s hits was Why Should the Devil Have all the Good Music?
But it wasn’t until the early- to mid-1970s that contemporary Christian labels started popping up.
And Ichthus grew with the genre.
It started out as a small event but steadily grew into an outdoor festival held at the Wilmore campground and hosted some of the biggest names in Christian music such as Andre Crouch and Phil Keaggy.
There will be homages to the past this weekend.
About Rich Copley & Copious Notes
Raised by opera-loving parents in a rock ’n’ roll world, Rich Copley has parlayed his broad interests into his career writing about arts and entertainment. Since 1998, he has covered performing arts, film and faith-based popular culture for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. MORE | E-mail Rich