I stood in front of a packed room at Prairie Lights Bookstore. The people sat and waited patiently. I was not the main event. I was a bridge to be crossed. In a few minutes brilliant writers and thinkers would take the stage to headline an event at Mission Creek Festival 2018. Yet, I was not there to talk about literature, music, or art: I was there to talk about sponsorship. It’s always an interesting moment, standing before an audience that hasn’t come to see me. I looked into the eyes of those literature fans and wondered how long they’d endure me before their empty gazes signaled my recusal from the stage.
Indeed, sponsorship is a riveting subject. It constitutes 35-40% of Mission Creek Festival’s annual budget, key portions of that support coming from our title sponsor University of Iowa Community Credit Union (UICCU) and our tireless advocates — both staff and council — at the City of Iowa City. A series of deep partnerships with various departments and programs at the University of Iowa and local businesses comprise the remainder of the support.
While we live for this work, navigating the fundraising waters of sponsorship can be dizzying: $10,000 from an organization one year dissolves into $1,000 the next year as a company’s funding and marketing priorities shift. That kind of volatility makes fundraising for cultural programming a nerve-racking job. (Stop by our office sometime and witness us sweat under the crushing weight of spreadsheets that refuse to reconcile until we’ve found those last two sponsors at $2,500 each: no dinner, no ice cream, no family time until we’ve closed the gap.)
From a different view, the act of seeking sponsorship also demands our staff to actively engage with the businesses and institutions that define our community. We actually have to talk to the people in our neighborhood and even if the answer is no: we have talked, we have listened, and we know each other. Spiritually speaking, $250 from a
small 500 sq ft business means as much as $25,000 from a corporate giant. Both of those checks reflect a business’ willingness to reinvest in the place where it thrives.
I recall visiting UICCU’s old HQ on Mormon Trek over six years ago with Christopher Wiersema (Feed Me Weird Things, MCF programmer) and Joe Tiefenthaler (FilmScene, MCF programmer) and sharing our dreams with their staff for expansion both in the performance and literary aspects of Mission Creek. I think I was wearing khakis (I literally wear jeans 300 days/year) and it was the first time I’d ever seen Mr. Wiersema dust off a sportcoat; we must have looked like scrappy art kids sitting in that revered financial institution. But the staff heard us out and not only said they would support our effort but actively encouraged us to do the work we wanted to do, to pursue our vision, to take a chance on building an experience alongside our community. That investment helped realize some of our boldest programming: legend Philip Glass and emerging composer Oneohtrix Point Never sharing the stage at the Englert, Faust wielding a cement mixer in the dark hollow of Gabe’s, and resident writers like Roxane Gay and Kiese Laymon pouring their art and labor into the heart of our community. A core fact remains unshakeable: investing in the arts reflects an investment in our collective spirit.
Yet, if the front yard of one’s brand is for sale – in this case, Mission Creek Festival – where do we draw the line? Would anyone care if our intimate arts festival for independent voices secured Amazon as our title sponsor? How would Mission Creek Festival presented by Aflac sound? Everyone needs insurance, right? There are likely a lot of blue-leaning Upper West Side New Yorkers at odds with the political will of the Koch Brothers, yet they are not at odds with the New York City Ballet’s performances that grace the stage of the David H. Koch Theater at the Lincoln Center. Each arts organization, it seems, must return to their guiding set of values and consider how each sponsorship aligns or deviates from the road map. Remember, art transcends many of the divisions that hamper us culturally. Art is the element that unites. And, for most organizations, “sustaining and preserving” are core aspects of their charge – and those two efforts require support and money.
For Mission Creek the choices so far have been easy: with each year our sponsors have increasingly become more Iowa-based and it is a point of pride to list the names of our backers: ten years of working with SCOPE Productions, media support from Iowa Public Radio and Little Village, local food, beer and spirits through Big Grove Brewery and Cedar Ridge, backing from Bread Garden Market, Iowa City Downtown District, Think Iowa City, Iowa City Area Development, and The Tuesday Agency – the list goes on.
I addressed the crowd at Prairie Lights and though I knew my time was limited, I didn’t feel nervous or weird as soon as I started talking. I am excited to talk about sponsorship to the audiences whether it’s at Prairie Lights, the Englert, or any other venue in our town. The contributions of varying size reflect a deep faith in our vision for the
festival and our sponsors see themselves as being part of the energy the festival puts into our community.
“Thank you for being here,” I said to the audience. “We literally can’t do this without our sponsors and we can’t do it without you.” The words seemed to resonate: I think people understood that from businesses to individuals in our community, we all play a part in culture’s sustained existence. I stepped aside and made way for the artists.
221 E. Washington St.
Iowa City, Iowa 52240