Monday, April 22, 2013

Festival International Founding.

From a response to a newspaper story. I am posting it because true beginnings should be remembered so history gets it right, no matter who tells the story.

Thank you for writing a very informative article about Festival International de Louisiane and its impact upon our city, region and state in today's Daily Advertiser.

However, a key component of your story is missing. Where did the idea for staging an annual visual and performing arts festival come from? As Founding President of Festival International de Louisiane, I have observed over the years that a landmark exhibition of paintings from Senegal West Africa presented by the University Art Museum of the University of Southwestern Louisiana in the spring of 1985 is almost always overlooked as a key component in the birth of Festival International. The following statement from your article illustrates how easy it is to forget the actual events that led to the creation of Festival.

[Gustin and community leaders met to discuss ways to attract more people to hear the music of the Francophone countries that had partnered with Lafayette.

“Somebody just said, ‘Let’s put all of our resources together and make it a one-time event, and focus all resources and time and money on that one event,” Gustin said.

And Festival was born.]

The 1985 Senegalese exhibition was complimented by a one week residency of Senegalese musicians Arfan and Kinda Diabate Kouyate who performed griot music in the museum, in Lafayette Parish public schools, at Southern University in Baton Rouge, and on the television program "Folks" which was aired statewide by Louisiana Public Broadcasting. The Senegalese musicians spoke French, not English, since Senegal, like Louisiana, had once been a French colony. I was amazed that I was able to speak with the Senegalese musicians using my native Cajun French, and realized we shared a Francophone heritage.

In the summer of 1985, I traveled to Amman, Jordan where I visited nine ancient village sites throughout the Jordan River Valley, working with USL architecture major Ammar Khammash on an international traveling exhibition and publication documenting these ancient sites. This project was funded by Queen Noor and the Royal Endowment for Culture and Education of Jordan, in response to a grant proposal I had submitted to the Queen. My total immersion in the desert environment and culture of Jordan was transformative. I realized how fortunate I was to have experienced within a six month period, the cultures of Senegal and Jordan, and I began to wonder about the possibility of organizing an arts festival in Lafayette, similar to the world renowned Spoletto Festival in Charleston, South Carliona, that could introduce the citizens of Lafayette to various world cultures.

I decided to take advantage of my return flight to Lafayette from Amman which made stops in Amsterdam and New York City to visit major art museums in those two world capitols. My first visit to Amsterdam included the Van Gogh Museum, Stedelijk Museum and Rijksmuseum as well as a concert of Indian sitar music at the largest concert hall in Amsterdam, part of a summer long India Festival being celebrated in several European capitols. In New York I visited the city's major art museums and attended several concerts.

When I returned to Lafayette in August 1985, I reflected upon the fact that within the first eight months of that year, I had experienced the finest cultural expressions of Senegal, Jordan, Holland, India, and New York City, and my interest in establishing an arts festival in Lafayette was stronger than ever. In the fall of 1985, I
approached representatives of Lafayette city and parish governments, Downtown Development Authority, Lafayette Parish Convention and Visitor Bureau, CODOFIL and the Délégation du Quebec en Louisiane with the arts festival concept. At a time when the local economy was faltering and citizens were feeling pessimistic about the region’s future, cultural tourism was seen as an economic development tool that had the potential to help turn the economy around and lift the spirits of area residents. Simultaneously, Lafayette's Department of Community Development and the Downtown Development Authority were already at work on plans to revitalize our city's center that had deteriorated as businesses and residents relocated to the suburbs surrounding Lafayette.

Jean Goyer, head of the Quebec Delegation's Lafayette office, shared information with our loosely organized ad hoc committee, about the Festival d'été de Quebec, an international francophone festival held every summer in the city of Quebec. In 1986 Mr. Goyer worked with our committee and Quebec officials to organize a fact finding mission to three summer Canadian festivals: the International Folklore Festival in Drummondville, Quebec, the Montreal Jazz Festival and the Festival d'été in the city of Quebec which was staging its 19th festival that year. Our committee, composed of representatives of Lafayette city and parish governments, CODOFIL, and the Downtown Development Authority, met with organizers of the three festivals, and was given detailed information about the organization of world class festivals including programming, production, public relations and marketing, fundraising and sponsorships, hospitality, and transportation.

Our committee returned to Lafayette and after holding a number of meetings with community representatives, decided to organize an international visual and performing arts festival in downtown Lafayette that would focus upon the French speaking countries of the world. A 501C3 non-profit organization was formed, led by a 35 member board of directors and a 12 member executive committee. The July 4th weekend of 1987 was selected for staging the first Festival to coincide with a special event - La Semaine Chantante International - a francophone choral convention of 500 singers meeting in the United States for the very first time. Sponsorships of the first festival came from state and local governments, corporate sponsors, the Quebec Delegation, French Cultural Services and the Agence de Coopération Culturelle et Technique headquartered in Paris.

When the citizens of Lafayette heard the magnificent syncopated drumming beats of the Master Drummers of Rwanda on opening night, it was clear our city had crossed the threshold of global awareness, and the idea of staging an annual international festival in Lafayette was both feasible and highly desirable.

The dedication of Festival's founders can never be overlooked, for it was their dedication, determination, perseverance and belief in the vision of Festival that witnessed an unprecedented commitment of time, energy, expertise and financial resources. Without that commitment, there would be no Festival today.

Through the years, Lafayette has embraced Festival’s mission to enrich our community by organizing a celebration of native cultures, stimulate interest in Francophone cultures around the world, and develop cultural tourism and enhance economic development by expanding Lafayette’s reputation as an arts center and destination for cultural events.

I thank you once again for writing about Festival today, and hope you will find an opportunity to share a more complete story of the birth of Festival International de Louisiane with the readers of the Daily Advertiser and the citizens of Lafayette.

Herman Mhire
Founding President
Festival International de Louisiane
President of the Board 1986 - 1989

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