Indy Jazz Fest regains firm financial footing: Organizer raises June event’s entire $1 million budget from corporate sponsors months in advance

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The ticket sales will be gravy.

American Pianists Association Executive Director Helen Small reports she’s already raised enough funds to cover the 2005 Indy Jazz Fest’s entire $1 million budget. Insolvent just three years ago, the festival has returned to firm fiscal footing.

“For the first time, we’ve had the advantage of having a year to plan,” Small said. “But one year’s success does not a festival make. This has to be achieved for several years to hold back the kind of money there needs to be in reserve.”

This year’s Indy Jazz Fest, scheduled for the weekend of June 17 to 19, will be the city’s seventh. But it’s been years since the popular festival stood on solid financial ground. A rainout in 2000 left Indy Jazz Fest’s previous organizers awash in red ink the next two festivals couldn’t erase. In 2003, the locally based APA took over its management and quickly staged a modest one-day show.

Last year, APA returned Indy Jazz Fest to its original three-day, multi-stage format. Small had aimed to raise all the funds necessary to pay its expenses from corporate sponsors in advance. But she fell $400,000 short of her goal. That meant 20,000 tickets had to be sold before the 2004 version of Indy Jazz Fest could turn a profit. Thanks to 34,000 actual ticket sales, APA made a gain on last year’s festival.

This year, it’s poised to do even better. APA formally registered the name “Indy Jazz Fest presented by Kroger” with the Indiana Secretary of State to recognize the contribution of its primary underwriter, Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. A slew of other corporate sponsors and a $200,000 contribution from Lilly Endowment Inc. helped Small meet her goal to raise the festival’s $1 million budget in advance.

And that doesn’t include hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of in-kind business donations, or the efforts of more than 500 volunteers. Small’s hopes are high that attendance at the 2005 festival will approach Indy Jazz Fest’s previous 55,000 record. Each ticket sold will strengthen the foundation of future festivals.

“People are willing to do whatever they can to keep the event going,” Small said. “Individuals are very generous and giving. If you can get before them and make a good case, people want to help. It’s contagious.”

APA has booked about 30 artists for the 2005 festival, although it’s saving their names for an April 14 announcement at Broad Ripple’s Jazz Kitchen. They’ll play on two stages, with a staggered schedule to prevent overlapping concerts. Fans complained about “sound bleed” in previous years, Small said, when artists played simultaneously in the multi-stage format.

“It’s actually, I think, going to be more fun. You’ll be able to move between the two stages,” Small said. “If the weather is good, our lineup is fantastic.”

Locally based Blackburn Architects Inc. President and CEO Alpha Blackburn is an APA board member and the chairwoman of its Jazz Fest Oversight Committee. Careful stewardship is necessary to protect the community’s cultural treasures, she said, such as the jazz festival.

That meant persuading business leaders that an Indy Jazz Fest sponsorship isn’t just a charitable contribution. It’s a marketing investment.

“Good intentions can only go so far. We had to try to buckle down and do our best to make it not just good, but profitable,” Blackburn said. “For sponsors of an event like this, it has to be a win-win situation. It has to be a good deal for the town and the sponsors, so that they reach the people they want to reach.”

Like most local jazz fans, Keira Amstutz, who is Mayor Bart Peterson’s director of cultural development, is simply pleased to see the recovery of an asset that helps make Indianapolis a cultural destination.

“It’s one of those events that as a city we all treasure,” she said. “They had a terrific festival last year and laid strong groundwork. I’m very happy they’ve weathered their storm.”


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