Photo Credit: Jane Gee
AthFest in happier times. Organizers pledge the event will return next summer.
As the coronavirus continues to spread illness and unease throughout Georgia and the U.S., Athens suffers a significant cultural and economic blow as organizers have announced the cancellation of this year’s AthFest Music and Arts Festival.
The festival, which was scheduled to take place June 25–28, is Athens’ flagship music event and an annual boon to the local economy, bringing tens of thousands of concertgoers, shoppers, eaters and drinkers downtown during an otherwise quiet month.
The announcement follows the recent cancellation of Austin, TX, mega-festival SXSW, plus a spate of postponements of major Athens events slated to take place in the coming months, including the Twilight Criterium and Classic City Brew Fest. The moves were made in response to local, state and federal guidelines designed to limit large gatherings and encourage social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.
Though Athens-Clarke County’s shelter-in-place ordinance currently only extends to Apr. 7, Jill Helme, the director of AthFest Educates—the nonprofit that puts on AthFest each year—says the board’s decision was made in the interest of short- and long-term safety, both physical and financial.
“It was such an incredibly difficult decision,” Helme says, adding that the conversation included “a lot of tears.” She continues, “There’s just so much uncertainty on how long it’s going to last. There are just so many what-ifs, unfortunately.”
Though the AthFest board considered postponing the event to fall, uncertainty surrounding the spread of COVID-19 and an inability to find workable dates on the calendar prompted the outright cancellation.
“We looked at what would be the financial ramifications—even if we postponed it and tried to carry it out, if it got canceled at the very end—what those ramifications would be to the organization,” Helme says. “And they would be massive, unfortunately. It would jeopardize our ability to produce AthFest in the future.”
The cancellation is another tough break for the community’s music venues, bars, restaurants and other small businesses, many of which have been all but decimated by recent developments and rely heavily on the traffic AthFest provides. In fact, the 23-year-old event was started specifically to provide an economic boost to downtown during the slow summer season.
“For us, AthFest is key. It essentially pays for July and keeps us alive,” Flicker Theatre and Bar co-owner Jeremy Long told Flagpole in 2017.
40 Watt Club talent buyer Velena Vego agreed, saying, “We’re always happy to see people leave in May so we can find parking spots and eat at our favorite restaurants, but by the end of June, we need them to come back.”
Helme says she understands the impact AthFest has locally.
“We know how much everybody’s suffering financially, and the last thing we wanted to do was make another decision that is going to make it even harder on those downtown businesses,” she says. “Unfortunately, it’s the one we had to make.”
The cancellation is also unwelcome news for many musicians, who count on AthFest for networking, exposure and the promise of a paid gig. As the AthFest board discussed how to redirect this year’s remaining funds, Helme says helping local artists was a top priority. “We wanted to be sure we were still continuing to support musicians,” she says.
With that in mind, the board voted to donate $10,000 to the Garrie Vereen Memorial Emergency Relief Fund, established by musicians’ resource center Nuçi’s Space to assist local musicians, crew members and club workers as Athens’ service-oriented economy continues to crater.
Helme says AthFest Educates will continue supporting music and arts education for local youth by awarding regular grants to teachers, administrators, community educators and others. She points out that some of those grants benefit adult musicians, too.
“A lot of our [work] is about programs that young people can participate in, but there are a fair amount of grants that go out to expose young people to professionals in the field—having artists and musicians coming in and performing for students,” says Helme. “And if we’re trying to show young people that a valuable, viable career exists for them in music and the arts, we have to do our part to support that, as well.”
Still, Helme is realistic about the potential ripple effect of so many closures and cancellations.
“My concern is, I don’t want to see any of our performing arts venues or spaces that display public art close,” she says. “If the infrastructure isn’t there… then we will lose music and artists here in Athens.”
In the spirit of optimism, Helme says the AthFest board has discussed staging smaller events later this year—“when we’re somewhat on the other side of this and we’re permitted again to bring people back together”—designed to bolster the local creative community. And, going forward, she says they remain committed to the festival’s successful resurrection.
“AthFest isn't ending,” she says. “We will absolutely be back… We’re here, we care about Athens, and we care about our artists and musicians.”