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ARTS FESTIVAL IN EAST VILLAGE RAISES DOUBTS AFTER 3 YEARS
By COLIN MOYNIHAN
The New York Times on October 13, 2005
By many measures, the third annual Howl! Festival, in the East Village in August, was a success. Some 250 events involving about 1,200 artists were held over eight days, and organizers said that more than 100,000 people attended the festival, which was started to celebrate the neighborhood's art and culture.
For three summers, the festival has sponsored new events and recreated old ones, like Art Around the Park, which first took place in the early 1990's, when artists painted on a canvas stretched around Tompkins Square Park after the city closed it for renovation.
But some supporters of Howl! are raising questions about the festival and its role in the neighborhood.
Some critics say the Federation of East Village Artists, formed in 2003 to organize the festival, has failed to act as an advocate for local artists and as a guardian of creative countercultural life. Others question how the federation manages its money.
Nearly everyone involved with the festival and the group that runs it -- including the two founders -- agreed that it began with lofty goals. But they also say that achieving those ends has not been easy.
The federation's "mission was lost," said David Leslie, an East Village artist and a founder of the festival. "The further we get away from our vision, the more flagrant the mistakes will become."
Mr. Leslie said that the federation had not been democratic and transparent enough. Instead, he said, Phil Hartman -- who first came up with the idea for the Howl! Festival and who has been the federation's executive director -- has made nearly all of the most important decisions alone or with a board whose members were chosen by him and by two federation employees Mr. Hartman hired and appointed to the board.
Although Mr. Leslie and others said they admired Mr. Hartman for his vision and determination, they also said that he employed a rigid management style. Some of his choices, like entering into arrangements with corporate sponsors, have jarred federation members who said they feared that the East Village's long artistic legacy and spirit of independence might be compromised.
At the same time, Mr. Leslie and others said, the federation has not taken serious steps toward goals that energized them at first, like providing health care for artists.
"None of us have ever been in it for the money," said Penny Arcade, a performance artist who is on the federation's advisory board. "We've been in it for the glory and the pride and the authenticity."
Mr. Hartman -- who said that he had sold parts of his restaurant businesses to finance Howl!, and who said that he decided several months ago to step down as volunteer executive director to make way for a full-time paid replacement -- said he sympathized with some complaints.
"I think it's very normal at about this point in an organization's life cycle to reflect back on the mission and the structure and re-evaluate," he said, adding that he would remain involved as a board member. "It's been enormous from the beginning and very difficult to nurture."
Mr. Hartman said that he welcomed additional opinions and that the federation was exploring ways to provide health care for artists. "These are huge projects," he said.
Differences have not been limited to the federation's mission. Michael Rosen, a former member of the federation board, said that after he gathered more than $80,000 in donations from neighborhood residents and a loan to the federation, Mr. Hartman declined his request to see financial records showing how some of the money had been spent. Mr. Rosen also said he was disappointed that the federation had yet to become registered as a nonprofit group.
Mr. Hartman said he had not been able to immediately show financial records to Mr. Rosen. He added that the federation had not acquired nonprofit status because of filing errors, but said the filing would soon be done properly. The board will soon expand to 15 members from 9, Mr. Hartman said, and a committee with people from the board of directors and the advisory board will be formed to oversee the federation's mission.
Despite the disagreements, the future of the federation and the festival is important to many artists in the neighborhood.
"Artists gave cultural capital to something that became commercial," said Clayton Patterson, a photographer, filmmaker and gallery owner who has been on the federation's advisory board. "We've lost our soul, and part of fixing Howl! is getting our soul back."