A not so brief review of the 2023 Bumbershoot
In 2019 I posted about the demise and hopeful rebirth of Bumbershoot. Well, it finally happened.
Summary: needs work.
Bumbershoot is an umbrella festival for the arts, music, visual, dance, what have you held at the Seattle Center in the fall – near or around the Labor Day weekend. I have been a Bumbershoot devotee since 1975 or 76. It and the Folklife Festival over Memorial Day weekend have been the bookends of summer for me for a very long time. The first post-pandemic Folklife festival was in 2022 and, while a bit more mellow than the earlier ones it, and the 2023 version maintained the traditional home-grown and loosely organized flavor.
A bit of history. This was the 50th anniversary of the first Bumbershoot but the first post-pandemic so only the 47th actual one. And the festival is actually 52 years old. The 1971 and 1972 versions were officially the Mayor’s Festival of the Arts. The sparkplug for them was Seattle’s first Arts Coordinator Ann Focke. (I met her a time or two early on but can’t place when or where.) She was also the sparkplug behind the creation of Artists Trust. With some kind of magic she convinced the city council, in the midst of the most serious financial crisis since the great depression, to earmark $25,000 (about $200,000 in today’s dollars) to a festival to act as sort of a ray of hope during the then-current “Last person out of Seattle turn out the lights.” Boeing faceplant. (I missed the first few festivals because we had fled to New York State until said faceplant had sort of blown over.)
The first festival was five days and the calendar shifted back and forth for a few years until it settled in to “Free Friday” and the three days of Labor Day weekend. There was initially no entry charge but a modest charge became necessary as city support waned but it was still a mostly volunteer driven event – a lot like the Folklife Festival. There was a wide variety of music on several smal stages, several well curated art shows, and a good deal of spontaneous goofiness. On Free Friday there was not a lot of music that I recall but the visual art displays were open and the mayor actually turned up to present several annual arts awards.
So it went until 2008 or 2009. In the face of further declines in city financial support the festival contracted with One Reel Vaudeville to organize the weekend. Under their leadership it became, well, more organized. Entry fees went up, Free Friday went away, the emphasis changed to fewer but more “headline” music groups and much less of the spontaneous goofiness that is the result of a volunteer organization.
After several more years of decline, organization of the festival went to AEG, a national producer of music festivals and the emphasis lurched very much towards bands with national recognition and a shrinking component of other arts – and a big increase in attendance fees. Attendance numbers dropped. After the 2019 festival it went dormant in honor of the pandemic and AEG threw in the towel.
The Crosscut Arts and Culture editor wrote: “After a three-year pause, Bumbershoot returns this weekend with more local music, more visual arts and a lot more old-school Seattle quirkiness.
This is good news for those of us who in recent years felt the fest had lost its way. Under the direction of mammoth producer AEG Presents, Bumbershoot gradually traded the creative oddities and locally conjured surprises it was founded upon in favor of huge musical acts — and huge ticket prices to finance them.”
Which brings me back to this year’s Bumbershoot. Again: “needs work”.
The hunger for a return of Bumbershoot was quite clear and the crowd was huge and cheerful.
It had shrunk to two days instead of three. The single day-of-event pass was $75 and the claim was that it was cheaper than it was for the 2019 version (but without national headliner music groups.) I scored a free pass to the Saturday/Sunday festival by having a few photographs in the 50th Anniversary show held in the A/NT gallery across from the international fountain. I had every intention of going both days but gave up after one.
Yep, it was organized. My major gripe was that there was absolutely nothing happening that had not been planned and choreographed with no elbow room for anything spontaneous or old-school Seattle quirkiness.
While the music was not by national names it still was the obvious anchor for the festival. There were three large stages, one at the Horiuchi mural -- one on Fisher Green, and one on the north end of the fountain lawn -- each with elaborate video support and bands that, to my jaded ear, all sounded alike and were loud to the level of near pain. From a block or so away the sound levels were loud enough to drown out conversation. Walking down the avenue south of the fountain I felt like I was being pummeled from left and right stages. The crowds surrounding them were dense and enthusiastic so maybe that is my problem. Between sets there was video on the stages and there were large scale video displays scattered about the grounds, many with corporate sponsors. There were a couple of much smaller stages that seemed to only be populated in the evening.
There were a number of smaller areas with sundry attractions – fingernail painting, fashions, and a “cat circus” that had a line more than a block long waiting to get in. In the area that formerly was the amusement park there was a space for double-dutch rope jumping, roller skate dancing.
Visual art included the 50th Anniversary photography show, the Flatstock poster show and several “out of sight” exhibitions – a large show in the Fisher Green Pavilion and sculpture on the plaza of the Pacific Science Center.
Then there was the matter of entry, security, and exit. There were two entry gaits, one through the Memorial Stadium and one next to the Exhibition Hall – both with metal detectors, bag searches, and very long lines. There were also metal detectors and bag searches to enter the Pacific Science Center plaza. There were, I believe, eight exits on the map – but all clearly marked “emergency exit” with a guard posted at them. It turned out that the guard would open the gate if you wanted to exit (and would remind you that there was no reentry.)
Praising with faint damns -- It was better than no Bumbershoot at all but a far cry from a resurrection of the Bumbershoot of old. Better luck next year.