Rich Howells

After 30 years, annual Mayfair Festival of the Arts in Allentown canceled for 2017, future unknown

After 30 years, annual Mayfair Festival of the Arts in Allentown canceled for 2017, future unknown
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The Board of Directors of the Mayfair Festival of the Arts in Allentown announced on its official website today that, after 30 years, the festival will not continue in 2017.

Citing financial difficulties, declining attendance, an increase in competing events and new venues, more focus on downtown development, and lack of volunteers, the nonprofit board of Mayfair, Inc., decided to cancel the annual festival and did not specify if it will return in 2018.

The first Mayfair was held in 1986 at Cedar Beach Park in Allentown for free. As it grew, it was moved in 2013 to the Allentown Agri-Plex, run by the Lehigh County Agricultural Society, at the Allentown Fairgrounds and became a paid event. In 2016, the four-day festival, held on Memorial Day weekend from May 27-30, featured 100 juried artist booths, eight music festivals featuring various genres, 20 food trucks, three stages, artist demonstrations, children’s activities, and more.

Disappointed former patrons of the festival have commented on various news websites that the decisions to put up a fence, charge admission fees, and move to the fairgrounds are what really killed Mayfair. Bad weather in 2011 and 2012 and a heat wave in 2016 didn’t help matters, according to The Morning Call.

Mayfair, Inc., said the festival has always struggled financially and only started charging admission after going into debt 15 years ago, paying it off bit by bit over time.

The full statement from the board is below:

The Board of Directors of Mayfair, Inc., is announcing that Mayfair Festival of the Arts will not be held in 2017.

Mayfair has struggled financially for most of it 30-year existence. A massive deficit about 15 years ago was the reason the members of the Board of Directors at that time voted to start charging admission for the Festival. But even the nominal entry fee of a few dollars could not provide the kind of income that would allow us to get through years when there was bad weather.

Over the past few years we have worked hard to pay off over a decade of accrued debt. But so much is changing in our region, in philanthropy, in volunteerism, and in Allentown, that we decided to take a step back and evaluate our future.

Until recently, Mayfair Festival of the Arts was one of the few options for concert-going and fine craft/art-buying. That is no longer the case. In just the past few years there has been an explosion in new entertainment options in our region. The Allentown Symphony started staging contemporary concerts. Penn’s Peak reopened. Then SteelStacks and The Sands opened. Then PPL Center opened.

What’s more, attendance at arts festivals across the U.S. is in decline. Many have been forced to close. In 1992, 41 percent of the adult population had visited an art festival within the past year. But in 2012, just 22 percent had.

The development in downtown Allentown has an impact on Mayfair, too, as foundation and individual giving has shifted to focus on downtown recovery. Admission sales cover only a fraction of the cost of producing the massive Mayfair Festival. What every arts organization relies on for sustainability is charitable contributions. No arts organization can survive on ticket sales alone.

Finally, Mayfair suffers from an issue that is striking all nonprofits: the decline in volunteers. Across the U.S., the older generation which faithfully volunteers in their community is aging out of the system and too few young people are taking their place. It is a crisis for all nonprofit organizations, but especially at Mayfair Festival which is was run by volunteers, with the exception of one full time staff person.

Our full time employee, Executive Director Arlene Daily, left Mayfair in September for another job. Considering also the departure of several volunteers, what we are hearing about the shift in focus in community funding, the increased competition in the realm of live concerts, the decreasing audience for arts festivals, and the continued susceptibility we have to the weather, we took this opportunity to re-evaluate and decided to cancel the 2017 Festival.

We explored the idea of partnering with another organization to run Mayfair Festival. An arts organization with sufficient administrative and fundraising staff could add the Festival to their suite of arts offerings. We have found a way to produce it at close to break even, so if run by existing staff in another organization it could be considered a fundraiser for them. But the Festival is unique, as we’ve been saying for three decades. It’s unlike what any other organization is doing, so it would be challenging for another organization to take over.

And the reality is the same for any organization considering such an event: the number of options for entertainment in our area is overwhelming, the audiences for art festival is shrinking, the funding streams supporting events in the city of Allentown are shifting, the pool of people who volunteer is declining, and despite every attempt to create an event that isn’t impacted by the weather, it still impacts us greatly.

Our Board discussed relocating the Festival to downtown Allentown to take advantage of the funding that supports downtown events, but felt we didn’t have sufficient volunteers and other resources for such a move.

We thank you for your interest in Mayfair Festival of the Arts.