Grace McOmber, Contributing Writer
The second weekend in October typically brings music and community to Brown’s Island as thousands of people gather to attend the Richmond Folk Festival. On Oct. 9, fans will tune into the festival at home — on their radios, televisions and computers.
Venture Richmond’s Director of Events Stephen Lecky said he and his team had almost no experience with virtual formats when it came to planning one of Richmond’s most iconic events.
“There’s nothing comparable to being shoulder-to-shoulder with 6,000 other people in a tent, and we just can’t do that right now,” Lecky said. “But the festival truly is Richmond at its best, and I’m thrilled we’re able to present an incredibly diverse offering for folks to enjoy.”
Venture Richmond, a nonprofit organization, works to enhance the city through economic development, marketing and events, which include the Richmond Folk Festival.
This year marks the festival’s 16-year anniversary. Occurring virtually from Oct. 9-13, it will include recorded sets, live-streamed performances and archived footage of past festivals — with over 30 hours of planned content throughout the weekend.
Organizers took inspiration from other events, such as the New Orleans Jazz Festival and Austin City Limits Music Festival, to incorporate different mediums of consumption for their fans.
“We wanted to give folks something new and different, but also maintain high-quality performances,” Lecky said.
With routine festival operations made impossible due to COVID-19, Lecky said the organizers had to come up with creative ways to engage with Richmonders and offer a sense of community. On Brown’s Island, fans can participate in a scavenger hunt of the festival grounds and enter to win prizes.
“Together Apart” is a 30-foot-wide interactive outdoor installation of an outlined hand shape on Brown’s Island. Fans are encouraged to bring their own painted rocks that represent something they miss or are looking forward to once the pandemic ends. The rocks will fill the piece, which is estimated to require 10 tons of rocks to complete.
“The hand symbolizes that, now more than ever, people have been yearning for that human touch,” Lecky said. “And we just haven’t been able to get that like we were six months ago.”
Many aspects of the festival were altered but creating an official poster remained a priority, Lecky said. Every year, an event poster is commissioned by the festival from a Richmond-based artist.
This year’s design was created by Shannon Wright, a VCUarts alumna and former illustrations editor of The Commonwealth Times. The illustration depicts an artist performing on a stage with fans in attendance in the form of tablet screens — nodding to the virtual modality of the festival. Wright said she hopes her work can provide a sense of togetherness.
“I know things are beyond scary right now and being away from those we love and share interests with is hard,” Wright said in an email. “I like using bright colors in my art and tend to include a variety of people in the work I create, so I hope that translates.”
Wright said while the festival will be different from past years, the virtual format could provide a more accessible venue for those that could not attend in the past.
The artist is looking forward to the festival’s return to “normal,” and hopes the accessibility will be incorporated into future in-person events.
The reception of the festival’s new format has been overwhelmingly positive, according to volunteer coordinator Jamie Thomas.
“People are sad about the situation,” Thomas said. “But they’re also very understanding and grateful that we are keeping their health and safety our top priority.”
According to Thomas, the enthusiasm for this year’s festival is apparent in the immediate response to this year’s small amount of volunteer opportunities.
“We’ve had to downsize drastically,” Thomas said. “But the spots that we did have filled up almost immediately. People still want to be involved.”
Volunteers have been a crucial part of the Richmond Folk Festival, especially during fundraising efforts for the free event. Thomas and Lecky said there is some anxiety among organizers about virtual fundraising, which can be done online or via text.
Finding solutions that adhere to social distancing guidelines — while still maintaining the integrity of the festival — has sparked ideas for a wide array of future acts.
“We’ve never incorporated technology on this scale before,” Thomas said.
This year’s virtual festival allowed for more international artists, Thomas said, compared to previous years when travel created additional costs.
“I think next year, we could take what we’ve done here and even stream select performances to include audiences from all over the world,” Thomas said.
For an event schedule and a list of ways to stream the Richmond Folk Festival, visit richmondfolkfestival.org.