Metro-East News

Spat over Strange Folk puts O’Fallon festival in jeopardy

In this file photo, visitors at the Strange Folk Festival are framed through an artistic bird feeder fabricated by one of the vendors.
In this file photo, visitors at the Strange Folk Festival are framed through an artistic bird feeder fabricated by one of the vendors. tvizer@bnd.com

Even a quirky arts festival can unleash fury within communities, calling into being cease-and-desist letters, police summonses, and lawyers.

Autumn Wiggins says the Strange Folk Festival belongs to her, and she says the City of O'Fallon can’t have it without her. Wiggins says all the things one associates with Strange Folk — the logos, the vendors, the music and the vibe — all come from her mind’s work, and the festival is hers to stop.

The City of O’Fallon disagrees.

“We’re suprised by Autumn’s interpretation of the event,” said Mary Jean Hutchison, director of the parks and recreation department, in a limited statement.

All of which means that, for now, the existence of Strange Folk 2015 may be up in the air.

Wiggins says she went to the O’Fallon Arts Commission in January to tell them the Strange Folk Festival of 2014 had been the last. Since then, the city sent out a “save-the-date” email to last year’s vendors, using a version of last year’s artwork. That violates a contract the city had with the artist, according to both the artist and Wiggins.

“I wanted to just let this go gently. I went in with the intention to fully end Strange Folk because it has taken so much out of me in the last 10 years,” said Wiggins, an O’Fallon native. The last few months have been especially difficult, she said, because she lives over her shop, The UPCycle Exchange, in St. Louis. The shop's window was broken during the November riots.

“I wanted to concentrate on my shop after the trauma, and on the city that supported me” she said. “I can’t afford to do Strange Folk anymore, away from my shop, and my family, and my friends.”

Hutchison said the city was made aware of Wiggins’ position through a statement posted by Wiggins on the Internet. Wiggins wrote a four-page statement on the StrangeFolkFestival.com website, in which she details her work with the festival and the city’s reactions and requests.

In her statement, Wiggins lists several grievances — including the city’s purchase of a similar domain: StrangeFolkFestival.org.

In Hutchison’s mind, the Strange Folk Festival is a city event.

“The Arts Commission, along with Parks and Rec, have held the festival for many years,” Hutchison said. She said between three and seven people are on the commission, which she said puts on other events in addition to the Strange Folk Festival.

“We appreciate (Wiggins) volunteering as well as the many people that put on this production, which has been many people throughout the years,” Hutchison said.

According to Wiggins’ statement, the city attorney sent her a short letter that referred to her as “a former employee” and required that she turn over the passwords to the Strange Folk website and Facebook pages. The city attorney is out of town and unavailable for comment.

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A St. Louis artist says she had a contract with the festival through Wiggins and was paid $500 for the iconic artwork used at the 2014 festival. By contract, she said, the artwork was not to be used after 2014.

“They stupidly sent me the save-the-date (email). They sent the artist that they stole from, the art that they stole,” said Michelle Volansky. She said the accompanying artwork had the year 2014 “crudely” covered with a 2015.

“I own the use of the artwork,” Volansky said. “I called the parks department, and .... let them know it was taken without permission and it was edited, and to me that’s the biggest issue.”

She added, “It shows the attitude of the whole problem and the whole concept — they don't understand the intellectual property.”

Previous vendors from the festival are lashing out on social media against the city and lining up behind Wiggins.

“They don’t understand that this craft community locally is really tight-knit,” Volansky said. “I don’t think they’ll get many talented artists to participate this year if they go through with it.”

Wiggins said the save-the-date email had the subject line of “StrangeFolk” as one word, which she thinks intrudes on her branding of the festival. “I'm not willing to let someone else use my hard work, my artistic design, my branding ... if someone else steps in and takes over on that, that’s going to reflect on me.”

Hutchison and Wiggins both said last year’s event had 150 vendors. Hutchison said the fees paid by vendors varied between about $75 to $150 apiece, though she was not sure. Wiggins said craft vendors paid $225 for the weekend. Neither was immediately able to provide information about the event’s revenue.

Attendance at last year’s festival was estimated at 15,000 to 20,000 on each of its two days.

“We could probably go bigger, but we’ve always slowly increased to what we could handle,” as far as resources and volunteers, Hutchison said.

Wiggins said she worked about six months on each festival with minimal compensation for it.

“When I started it, I didn’t really have intentions to have it that long, and to get it that big,” she said. “Over the years it just became so much work. I never had any intentions of it getting huge or making money off it, but it wholly encompassed my life.”

WIggins said she did everything from choose vendors to designing and painting signage. For that, she said, she asked the city to purchase a $1,700 MacBook Pro “from the festival budget.”

Sometime this year, the city asked for the computer’s return, which Wiggins says belongs to her. “Give me my laptop back, and let’s call it a day,” she wrote in her online statement.

“The City of O'Fallon purchased the laptop,” said Walter Denton, the city administrator for O’Fallon. Wiggins said the machine was turned over to police and sits as evidence in the department.

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