Four years ago, Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon and his friend Aaron Dessner of the National aimed to create a music festival unlike any other in Vernon’s Wisconsin hometown.
Since then, the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival has brought up to 20,000 folks annually from all over the country and world to see a variety of acts, ranging from iconic artists like Paul Simon and Mavis Staples to hip newcomers such as Chance the Rapper, a host of indie bands, and respected performers including Wilco, Bruce Hornsby, John Prine, Erykah Badu and the Blind Boys of Alabama amid woods, fields and the Chippewa River just outside Eau Claire.
The two-day festival has also helped spark an economic and cultural transformation in Eau Claire, bringing in as much as $6.8 million to area businesses.
But after four years of notoriety for the festival’s eclectic, collaborative performances and innovative, interactive art displays, organizers announced Monday that a fifth installment will not be coming in 2019.
“In the last four years we have grown together as patrons and organizers; these experiences are perfectly focused within our own collected memories, and feel something like going through four years of high school — the growth, the mistakes, the energy, but most of all the searing, stumbling beauty of becoming one’s self,” organizers and founders said in a statement on the festival’s website. “After our senior year, we find ourselves wanting to move out, change things and take stock of who we’ve become. In order to manage that transition we are going to take a year off.”
The statement comes less than a week after Summerfest announced Bon Iver will make its debut at the Milwaukee music festival next year, while also confirming the show would be the Grammy Award-winning band’s only Wisconsin concert of the summer.
In years past, the dates for the festival were typically announced by the previous fall, but this year? Silence from Vernon, Dessner and other fest organizers.
That clue, along with the backlash Eaux Claires organizers received this past summer for what some say was a lackluster lineup that was kept secret, led to rampant media speculation that the festival would not be returning for a fifth year.
While there will be no Eaux Claires in 2019, organizers said the festival will return in 2020 with fresh ideas as well as a change of location.
Though the festival has been held at Foster Farms in the Eau Claire County town of Union, the site of Country Jam USA, City Council acting President Andrew Werthmann confirmed the festival is looking to centralize its location to downtown Eau Claire.
Werthmann said there hasn’t been an official proposal yet, but the idea would be for the festival to become an experience similar to the Eau Claire Jazz Festival’s “52nd Street” on Barstow Street, while also using the recently opened Pablo Center at the Confluence and Haymarket Plaza, as well as Phoenix Park and other private and public venues.
“(Eaux Claires) already provides a huge economic benefit to our downtown, so I think the question is, would that increase? I think there’s a possibility it would,” Werthmann said. “It’s actually pretty amazing, the way that the festival brings people to our community.”
Although Eaux Claires has been an highly successful event for Eau Claire’s economy, Visit Eau Claire’s executive director, Linda John, said taking a “gap year” and bringing back a bigger, stronger festival is a good strategy.
“It’s a big event, no question about it. It’s put Eau Claire on the map, not just for those two days but also as a destination for people to visit and live,” John said. “But I think we’re going to be just fine. We might have a little dip (in tourism dollars) in 2019. ... But I think it’ll be even better having it in a more centrally located part of our community.”
Festival organizers will be hosting public events at Pablo Center in the coming months “incorporating performance and dialogue about the direction we plan on taking the festival,” according to the statement.