Live on Washington: The Evolution of a Teen-Curated Festival, and Why It’s Important

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nz-joelIt’s late spring, 2012, and 15 teenagers sit around a rectangular table on the second floor of the Neutral Zone, Ann Arbor’s teen center. Still celebrating the success of their year-end showcase just weeks before, the team discusses what went well, what didn’t and how they want the show to play out in the future. Many of the teens are concerned that the current format, a sort of battle-of-the-bands annually held at the University of Michigan’s Power Center and titled “Breakin’ Curfew,” no longer meets the event’s objectives. The team brainstorms goals for future events:

  1.    Teens must be included as leaders in all aspects of the production. This includes planning, promotion, fundraising, performance and execution on the day of the event.
  2.    The Neutral Zone (NZ) must be visible and at the forefront of the showcase. This will bring more youth through the organization’s doors and further our center’s mission.
  3.    The showcase must be accessible to all, regardless of age, socioeconomic status or any other identity.
  4.    The primary goal of the event must always be to showcase teen art and music, and promote this value across our community.

Fast forward to 2016, and I am proud to say that the our newly structured showcase accomplishes all of these goals. Entering its fifth year, Live On Washington, affectionately known as LOW, is a free, teen-curated outdoor street art festival that takes place right outside the NZ in downtown Ann Arbor. Inspired by festivals like Coachella, Pitchfork or Bonnaroo, LOW features teens’ music, spoken word and visual art throughout the day, and concludes at night with a musical headliner.

As one of the lead facilitators of the teen curation team, I can tell you how it all starts with about 20 teens who meet on Monday nights, starting in September, to bring around 2,000 to the festival on a Saturday in May or June. Working together weekly around that rectangular table in NZ’s conference room for eight months, our team of teen curators book a headliner, select teen acts, fundraise, and promote the festival.

Teen concert organizers and curators met weekly to plan a citywide event that drew huge crowds.

Neutral Zone

Teen concert organizers and curators met weekly to plan a citywide event that drew huge crowds.

Of course, we don’t do this alone. The entire Neutral Zone staff is incredibly supportive throughout the year, whether that means helping us write grants, obtaining city permits, locating corporate sponsorships or providing any other support we may need. During our weekly meetings adult advisors help support our planning, connect to the organization’s fundraising and promotions work, ask questions and work with the teen facilitators to keep the group accountable and on-task. In a world where young people’s opinions and voices are often silenced or minimized by adults, NZ’s staff makes every reasonable effort to amplify our voices and to emphasize our importance. Decisions are made by youth with the guidance and support of adults, a process that is instrumental in the development of strong young people with strong young voices.

Even though the planning is beneficial to teens, it’s important that we are intentional about why we want to hold a festival in the first place. Why work so hard for eight months just to put on a festival that will inevitably make us little to no money? For me, the answer has always been clear: Supporting the artistic expression of young people is central to supporting their ideas, and their contributions to the community. LOW serves as a platform for teens to express their emotions to a wider audience, regardless of what that expression is.

As a drummer who has performed in LOW twice, I have experienced the empowerment that comes with feeling validated in your artistry. LOW’s primary goal always will be to support teen artists, in their pursuit of a specific craft and in their value to the wider community.

So, this spring, after months of planning and promotion, after thousands of dollars worth of fundraising and after the festival has come and gone, the rest of the curators and I will sit around that rectangular table on the second floor of the Neutral Zone and ask ourselves the same questions that the group in 2012 posed: Does this showcase represent our values and accomplish the goals that we have laid out? Is it lead by young people? Does it further the NZ’s mission? Is it accessible? Does it showcase teen art?

I am confident that with Live on Washington 2017, the answer will be yes.

Joel Appel-Kraut, 17, is a co-facilitator of the Live on Washington curation team and a four-year NZ teen, where he serves on the board of directors.