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From October 8th through the 10th, artists and musicians from as far away as Germany will descend on Uptown Kingston for the first-ever—and singularly innovative—O+ Festival.
By definition, festivals are all about fun: They’re about being festive. But the O+ Festival has a serious—and seriously admirable—side too. Participating artists and musicians will be paid with free health care donated by local medical professionals. Medical screenings will be provided on site, with follow-up care often available on a free or deeply discounted basis.
It’s a wonderful opportunity for the artists and musicians, many of whom don’t have health insurance. “If you’re a creative person in the arts, you don’t get a paycheck,” says Joe Concra, a local artist and one of the festival’s organizers. “If it’s a choice between paint and health care, you’ll choose paint.”
The opportunity isn’t only for the artists and musicians. It’s for the entire community. It’s not exactly a state secret that our health care system is a disaster. Nearly 50 million people lack health insurance and another 25 million are underinsured. To make matters worse, there is widespread ignorance about what medical services actually are available. In the Hudson Valley, for instance, it’s possible for people without health insurance to get discounted or even free health care. If you’re like a lot of people, your response to this is, who knew?
In addition to a care delivery site, the O+ Festival will have a care information site where attendees can learn about local health care resources. Planned Parenthood, the American Cancer Service’s Cancer Screening Program, Healthy NY, the Mid-Hudson Family Health Institute, and the Center for Donation and Transplant are among the organizations that will have tables there, as will alternative resources such as acupuncture, holistic care, nutritional counseling and yoga.
Dr. Art Chandler, a member of the planning team who in his day job manages transitions into and out of Hudson’s Columbia Memorial Hospital, is quick to stress the “nonutopian” nature of the organizers’ aspirations. “This isn’t about delivering free health care,” he says. “Artists and musicians will get a one-time visit with a provider of their choice, but our real thrust is to get them involved in a system where, even if they don’t have insurance, they can get ongoing health care.”
Ditto for festival attendees. “One benchmark of success for me,” says Chandler, “will be how many people visit the information center and come away better equipped to address their health care needs.”
Local health care professionals have flocked to the O+ vision. The current roster of health care participants includes representatives from the following fields (deep breath now!): acupuncture, addiction counseling, chiropractic, dentistry, general practice, massage therapy, occupational therapy, orthopedics, physical and sports therapy, and radiology. It’s not quite “Volunteerism Gone Wild”—don’t expect to see doctors flashing their chests on video any time soon—but it’s mighty impressive. “I’m amazed at how fast doctors have come on board,” says organizing team member Alexandra Marvar.
Three distinct pieces need to come together for the O+ Festival to succeed—vision, talent, and attendance. The organizers have the vision thing covered in spades, and not just because of their health care innovation. The art component is visionary, too. The organizers have issued a call for paste-up art on the related subjects of anatomy, the body and wellness. During and in some instances after the festival, this art will rise 20 feet or higher on exterior and interior walls in Uptown Kingston. They’re like those familiar medieval festival banners, reinvented.
According to Kevin Paulsen, who like fellow organizer Concra is an artist and Uptown Kingston resident, that’s not the only tradition they’re heir to. “In the old days, a carnival would come to town and put up posters. Itinerant artists did it too: ‘Portraits painted, this week only!’ What we’re doing is in these traditions.”
The initiative also has an economic-development angle. “Some of this art will be visible all year long,” says Paulsen. “It’s a way to make Kingston a more visible home to public art. Hopefully this will attract more visitors and artists.”
For Paulsen, the O+ Festival’s visionary aspect is one of its main attractions. “We’re hoping to open people’s minds a bit to new ways of thinking,” he says. “We want to demonstrate that, in this period of dramatic change when the old ways of doing things are often broken, there are creative, alternative, community-driven ways to get things done.”
As for talent, that’s coming together nicely too. “We’ve gotten submissions from artists who normally wouldn’t work in this vernacular,” says Paulsen. An impressive collection of regional musical talent has been lined up as well, including singer/songwriters Tracy Bonham, Gail Ann Dorsey, and Nina Violet, who recently performed for President Obama on her home turf of Martha’s Vineyard. Altogether there will be 20 bands performing at nine Uptown Kingston venues.
There’s been no shortage of interest from the national musical community, largely because of the festival’s innovative health care twist. According to Marvar, who’s spearheaded the booking of bands, some major national organizations and a prominent national booking agent initiated contact with the organizers and expressed the desire to get involved.
Next year, maybe. Concerned about overreaching, the organizers have opted to go slowly for now. With good reason: The idea for the festival was born barely five months ago. It all began at last spring’s Truck Festival in Big Indian, when dentist Tom Cingel was so taken with the band Monogold that he offered them free dental care if they’d play in his Kingston hometown. One conversation led to another, and the next thing you knew, the O+ Festival had been born, with a commitment to hold it…in October! That’s not much time to start a festival from scratch, especially when it’s being done on a totally volunteer basis.
Some organizers were inclined to wait till next year, a caution that now appears unwarranted. “The concept has really taken off,” reports Concra. “The community is totally behind this. It’s amazing how many people are contributing space or services. People just get it.” Momentum is building for a successful kick-off event this year.
If. Which brings us to the third critical component for success—attendance. If people don’t show up for the festival, it will be another of those occasions, all too familiar to Mid-Hudson Valley residents, where dreams of community magic break apart on the shoals of desolate venues. We’ve all been there—musicians playing their hearts out to an audience consisting of a boyfriend or girlfriend, a few stragglers, and a bartender cleaning his fingernails.
The organizers have made the event ultra-affordable, with a suggested donation of $25 for the entire weekend. Marvar puts the emphasis on “suggested.” “While we hope people will make donations in exchange for tickets, we don’t want money to be the obstacle that keeps someone from attending,” she says. “In its founding, its organizing and its programming, O+ is all about inclusion. That goes for the audience, too. If people can only pay a quarter, that’s okay. Good turnouts are what will make this a sustainable event.”
There are certainly plenty of reasons to attend. Among them: great music, interesting art, what promises to be a high-spirited, three-day, multivenue community party—and, beyond all this, the opportunity to put an unofficial “proof of concept” stamp on an event that has everything it takes to become a national phenomenon.
The local and national response over the last five months says it all: The O+ Festival is an idea whose time has come. It’s not a pipe dream to envision the O+ Festival (or variations on the theme) in towns and cities throughout the country 10 years down the road. My prediction: 200 locations by 2020.
Why the bullishness? For one thing, the O+ Festival is very much part of the zeitgeist. It’s not looking to government for help. It’s about people helping people in a totally postpartisan manner, about putting the magic of creativity in service of positive change. And then there’s this: The O+ Festival brilliantly combines four basic human needs: the need for music, the need for art, the need to problem-solve at the grassroots level (a more urgent need than ever these days!)—and, last but not least, the need to celebrate in community.
Ultimately, it’s love of place—in this case, Uptown Kingston—that’s driving the organizers. “The fabric of community is frayed,” Art Chandler says. “With the O+ Festival, we hope to supply some of the threads that piece it back together.”
For more information: www.opositivefestival.org.