How going smaller has Rochester area festivals looking to a big 2024

Jan. 27—ROCHESTER — Rochester Pride returns in May for its fourth festival. Unlike previous years, the event celebrating queer and other gender identity and sexual orientation minority communities won't be held simultaneously with the Slatterly Park neighborhood's Art on the Ave.

Art on the Ave organizers

announced in November that the event would be on hiatus for 2024.

However, instead of being glad to be rid of competition this year, Pride organizers say they're sad that there won't be another community event to help entice people to come out the day of the event.

"We have a little less community to partner with in that regard," said Bethany Gangestad-Birk, Rochester Pride board member and volunteer.

Both festivals drew strong crowds last year with many people visiting both events. Pride board members discussed sharing promotions for their events this year.

Instead, Pride is, so far, the centerpiece event for May 18, 2024.

Members of the four-person Art on the Ave board said they needed to take a year off. Most have been serving on the board for nearly a decade or more.

"It was a difficult decision, but we just decided that we all need a little rest," Art on the Ave board president Kalianne Morrison said in November about the decision.

Gangestad-Birk said it's a decision she understands and supports.

Growing the festival and avoiding taking on too much is a balance for volunteers and Pride board members, Gangestad-Birk said.

"Rochester Pride doesn't want to reach that point of burnout," Gangestad-Birk said.

The Pride group formed as a nonprofit after the previous Rochester Pridefest was established in 1998 and led by the Gay/Lesbian Community Services. For 20 years, a core group of volunteers planned and organized an annual festival until the event fizzled and was canceled in 2018 due in part to a lack of willing and new volunteers.

"They'd all been doing it for many, many years and they got to the point they couldn't do it," Gangestad-Birk said.

The new Rochester Pride group, which included Gangestad-Birk, was founded in 2019 with a hastily planned event at Soldiers Field. Nearly 800 people attended the event. The COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers to cancel the 2020 and 2021, but it also gave them more time to plan for a 2022 event. Turnout at the 2022 event was more than double 2019's attendance.

That shows how taking a break can sometimes rejuvenate a festival, Gangestad-Birk said.

"It gave people the time and space to refocus their energies on the event," she said.

Art on the Ave left off with one of the best attended events in its history in 2023. The board continues to meet and discuss possibilities for more public art and maintaining the art the organization has brought to the Slatterly Park neighborhood since it was founded in 2007.

While a triumphant return isn't being ruled out for 2025, it's still up in the air whether the festival, as it was held for more than 20 years, returns organizers said.

Rather than taking a year off, a couple of area festivals are scaling down in 2024.

Big Turn Music Fest, which brought more than 200 bands to downtown Red Wing in February 2023, returns this year with a smaller lineup but some eclectic indoor activity offerings. The 2024 Big Turn Music Fest, Feb. 16-17, will feature 120 bands in 16 venues in downtown Red Wing as well as a Euchre tournament, bingo and cribbage.

Like other volunteer-driven events, continuing at such a large scale wouldn't have been sustainable, said Sam Brown, Big Turn Music Fest founder and director.

"One issue is it's really taxing on the team putting it together at that scale," Brown said. "We did it, but it took a lot out of us."

Festival organizers also cut costs and tightened the budget, Brown said.

In addition to scaling back and cutting costs, Big Turn is partnering with Red Wing Arts, which is helping with administration of the festival.

"Big Turn is such a unique event and we're very aware that other festivals struggle on the administrative side of things," said Emily Guida Foos, executive director of Red Wing Arts.

Guida Foos said the festival has been a draw for visitors and a point of pride for residents and local musicians.

"Red Wing gets to continue having it," Guida Foos said. "Burnout is huge, especially when it's a festival that asks for a lot of volunteer time in it."

Downstream, the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minnesota, this year will have a smaller season than ambitious seasons in the past. The season kicks off June 25 and will feature productions of "Hamlet" directed by Doug Scholz-Carlson and "Much Ado About Nothing" directed by Gaby Rodriguez.

Also in Winona, the Midwest Music Fest marks its 15th year with music scheduled for May 10-11. Although the Winona half of the two-part festival is set for a full schedule of music, the second half of the music festival, which is held in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is currently up in the air.

The La Crosse half hasn't been profitable for the festival the last couple of years, organizers said.

"We're NOT saying goodbye to La Crosse," a statement from MWMF said. "(W)e are taking a little time away to rethink and regroup."

More competition is also a factor contributing to the financial and volunteer struggles of area festivals and events. More events are competing for funding and volunteer hours.

When Nick Novotny was looking to establish a Rochester-focused music festival in 2018, he carved out time in March.

"The initial idea behind the concept was looking at where there were gaps in greater Southeast Minnesota and beyond in the music calendar," said Novotny. "March was really quiet for larger scale music events in this part of Minnesota."

Thaw, which will be March 23 this year, won't be shrinking. Thaw returned in 2023 after two years of hiatus to expand to six downtown Rochester venues.

The same venues will host an entertainment lineup that contains 30 groups

with only two acts returning from last year — Hiahli and Burly Bluffs burlesque troupe.

Although the footprint of the festival isn't changing, staggered start times will allow more tickets to be sold for the festival this year, Novotny added.

Like Big Turn partnering with Red Wing Arts, Thaw was able to expand after its COVID-related hiatus thanks to collaboration. Music promotion group My Town My Music took over the festival in 2023.

Pride organizers say that's how they intend to expand beyond the five-hour festival. Friday and Sunday events are in the works, but plans are still being confirmed. However, organizers say it won't involve the board taking on too much.

"We want this to be the biggest and best thing we possibly can," Gangestad-Birk said. "We need more hands to do that."

Although some events are taking a year off or scaling back, these festivals and events are returning in 2024.

Frozen River Film Festival

When: Feb. 4-11

The annual Frozen River Film Festival features in-person film screenings, discussion panels, workshops, streaming film screenings and other events. In-person festival dates are Feb. 4-11. Screenings and events are held around Winona. A full schedule is available at

Bluff Country Gathering

When: May 16-19

The annual Bluff Country gathering is a four-day event of traditional American music, dance and singing styles. It includes performances, workshops and demonstrations conducted by a staff of nationally acclaimed musicians, singers, dancers and folklorists. The event culminates with a public concert May 17 at the Lanesboro Community Center and a barn dance at the Community Center May 18.

Southeast Minnesota Bluegrass Association spring festival

When: May 17-19

In its 32nd year, the Southeast Minnesota Bluegrass Association is hosting three days of performances, camping and traditional bluegrass picking circle jams at Cushon's Peak Campground between Houston, Minnesota, and Rushford, Minnesota, May 17-19. Instruments are welcome, but alcohol and pets aren't allowed in the festival grounds or building.

Lanesboro's Art in the Park

When: June 15

Hosted by Lanesboro Arts, Art in the Park is southern Minnesota's longest running fine art fair. Admission is free. In addition to live music, the park fills with art vendors from around the tri-state area including paintings, photography, jewelry, textiles, stoneware and pottery, blown and fused glass sculptures, works made from reclaimed wood and more.