(Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the Wednesday, January 20, edition of the Journal Record and is being published here with the permission of the Northwest Alabama Arts Council and the authors of the article, Marla Minter & Kathryn “Chazz” Hirschfeld.)
COMMUNITY—The Northwest Alabama Arts Council’s (NWAAC) Tuesday, Jan. 12, meeting was one of the most difficult in the organization’s two-decade history. After lengthy and thorough discussions, members voted unanimously to cancel the 19th Annual Jerry Brown Arts Festival (JBAF).
The 2021 edition of the JBAF had been slated for its regular annual first weekend of March date (March 6-7) at the Tombigbee Electric Cooperative (TEC) in Hamilton, Ala.
NWAAC President Belinda McRae noted in a press release that the meeting’s discussions centered on safety for the artists, the staff and volunteers, the public, and TEC.
“The greatest factors in making the decision about whether to go forward or cancel were the continued increase in COVID-19 case numbers in the area and the lack of availability of the COVID-19 vaccinations for all citizens until later in the spring or summer,” McRae said.
“It’s just not worth the risk to all those who would participate, attend, and volunteer.”
The arts council held out hope until the very last minute that the event would go forward. The January meeting marked an important 60-day pre-festival date, a time for firm decisions and the beginning of full production for many intricate festival preparations.
The previous week, the arts council’s popular arts program, “Molding Hearts, Hands & Minds,” was cancelled because of lack of social distancing space available at Brown’s Pottery.
Each year, students usually attend classes at the pottery studio and make their own pieces to be displayed at the JBAF. This year’s featured group was scheduled to be the fourth-grade students of Hackleburg Elementary School.
Emotional Meeting, Tough Decisions For Arts Council
Northwest Alabama Arts Council members look over a press release during their Tuesday, Jan. 12, meeting held at Hamilton City Hall regarding the first-ever cancellation of their award-winning Jerry Brown Arts Festival (JBAF). Shown are: (from left) treasurer Buell Harris, president Belinda McRae, JBAF founder Tyna Pyburn and JBAF co-founder Sandra Brown. (Photo: Michael E. Palmer/Northwest Alabama Arts Council.)
Red Flags Recognized, Painfully Addressed
Social distancing and other COVID-19 concerns were also brought up during the arts council’s meeting by its treasurer, Buell Harris.
“This is actually the first and probably only time that being an indoor event actually hurt us,” Harris said. “The finite details of being able to accomplish what we need to do to be a successful, award-winning event were going to be extremely difficult to navigate considering COVID-19 public protocols.
“Those personal touches that we traditionally do to assist with and interact with the artists and the public were not going to be possible with these restrictions. Those were huge red flags for us in our recent discussions of attempting to go forward with the festival.”
Sandra Brown, co-founder of the JBAF and widow of the late Jerry Brown, tearfully added, “It hurts, but I know it’s the right thing to do.”
JBAF founder Tyna Pyburn also emphasized the community’s support and the importance of protecting them and everyone involved with the festival.
“The JBAF was started as a very special, very unique event, one which is representative of the beauty, heritage, and talented people of this area,” she said.
“The arts festival, from the start, has been greatly supported by our community, with most attendees coming from within a one-hour radius of Marion County. We owe it to our artists and our supporters to be a ‘good citizen’ and not potentially put anyone in harm’s way.”
Harris also discussed the NWAAC’s accountability to the artists, many of whom are repeat participants and have been coming to the festival for many, many years.
“Our artists have expenses involved with spending the weekend here and preparing their booths and artwork, and paying for their food and lodging,” he said.
“And if the public can’t attend or if attendance is limited, they lose money, which, in turn, harms the reputation of the JBAF. They place their faith and trust in us as an organization to do the right thing for them.”
Pyburn indicated that the 2020 version of the JBAF was one of the few arts festivals which was able to be held in Alabama last year. COVID-19 restrictions began less than two weeks after last March’s JBAF.
Festival Has Overcome Many Obstacles In Past, Protecting Its Future At Heart Of Decision
”Tonight’s decision was a heart-wrenching decision by arts council members,” McRae explained. “We’ve fought tooth-and-nail through the years to keep the festival going, bouncing around at multiple locations within the Hamilton area, before finding a permanent home at Tombigbee several years ago.
“Then we dealt with the loss of Jerry (festival namesake Jerry Brown), literally on the eve of the 2016 festival. Cancelling is something none of us wanted to do.”
Pyburn added, “We’ve overcome the passing of Jerry, we’ve overcome building issues in the past. We’ve dealt with every form of bad weather—rain, sleet, snow, wind, and a tornado—and even nice weather. But we’ve never had to cancel.
“We know these are unique times. And in the end, we felt the most important thing we could do to take care of the JBAF and its future was to protect everyone involved. Unfortunately, that means cancelling this year’s event. We don’t have a choice.”
During further discussions, Pyburn emphasized that the arts council will go forward with its popular JBAF collectors’ edition T-shirts.
“Our 2021 T-shirts will have a fun theme of the festival that never took place,” she said, “Our community is so supportive of this event and this will be a way that we can take away a little bit of the pain of its cancellation and we can all smile a little bit. And it also helps us as we start fundraising for the special 2022 JBAF.”
The T-shirts will be ready for internet launch and public sales on what would have been this year’s JBAF weekend, March 6-7.
Consolation Prize (T-Shirts) Will Be Available For Fans
Jerry Brown Arts Festival (JBAF) Founder Tyna Pyburn discusses the special T-shirts that will be created for collectors to commemorate the 2021 JBAF that was not to be. (Photo: Michael E. Palmer/Northwest Alabama Arts Council.)
Looking Forward To 20th Anniversary, Grateful For Partners, Supporters
McRae concluded the meeting on a positive note, speaking on the arts festival’s future, its partners and its many supporters.
“This is a temporary bump in the road for the JBAF,” she said. “Preparations have been underway for some time now for the 2022 edition, which will be our 20th anniversary.
“And we are so grateful to Tombigbee Electric for their support of the JBAF. They were supportive of our decision, whether it was to go forward or to cancel. We can’t stress enough what a tremendous partner they are to the JBAF and the role they play in our success.
“We also appreciate the support of our artists, our staff and volunteers, our sponsors, and the community. We look forward to a special and extraordinary return on March 5-6, 2022, as we celebrate the 20th Anniversary milestone of the JBAF.”
For More Information, visit JBAF.org or the “Jerry Brown Arts Festival” on Facebook!
Photo Credits: Feature Photo – Chazz Hirschfeld; Inset Photos – Michael E. Palmer/Northwest Alabama Arts Council.