Special events like Reno’s Artown take year-round prep and planning to pull off

Artown attendees dance during a music performance at last year's festival.

Artown attendees dance during a music performance at last year's festival.

RENO, Nev. — Beth MacMillan walks into the meeting room carrying an oversized calendar — roughly 5 feet by 7 feet — speckled with sticky notes of neon pink, blue, yellow and red. Fittingly, the colorful palette of Post-It Notes has an artistic look to it.

After roughly nine months of planning and preparing, and another month to go, the Artown executive director is showing what the month of July looks like to her.

“Post-Its should actually sponsor every festival in the world,” MacMillan quips.

It’s a Monday morning in downtown Reno inside the offices of Artown, a nonprofit that hosts the popular citywide arts and culture festival throughout July. The month-long event brings nearly 500 events produced by more than 100 organizations in nearly 100 locations in Reno.

Two months out, MacMillan is at the home stretch of putting the finishing touches on the planning canvas for Artown 2018.

Which begs the question: What does it take to put on such a large-scale special event as Artown?

For starters, it takes a lot of money.

“We have to raise $1 million,” said MacMillan, who joined Artown in 2001 and became the director two years later, in 2003.

From financial contributions from the city of Reno to corporate funders to individual donors, Artown is strongly supported year in and year out, MacMillan said.

The largest portion of Artown’s funding in 2017 came from earned revenue (23 percent), followed by corporate funding and foundations (19 percent).

“It offers very exciting opportunities for donors or funders to look at ways of supporting the community and getting a return on their investment,” MacMillan said. “Artown has really shifted and made July the best month of the year in this community. It just really changes the culture landscape.”


In addition, she said partners like Wild River Grille, Reno Tahoe Limousine and Steinway Piano Gallery — which provide free dinners, transportation and pianos, respectively, for performing artists — play a huge role in pulling Artown off.

“We rely on our partners to come to the table with what they have,” she said. “They don’t necessarily write us a check, but it’s as good as a writing us a check.

“We work really hard on that in-kind trade. Otherwise it would be hard to put on a festival where most of it is free.”

While the funding funnels in, MacMillan is all the while piecing together the brightly labeled calendar flipped to July. She starts blueprinting each Artown after attending the Western Arts Alliance Conference at the end of August. Notably, MacMillan is the immediate past president of the WAA.

“The big question is what are the artists going to cost?” MacMillan said. “So then its about me going shopping, really, to see what artists I can get in the budget that I know I can afford. Because I have to get it underwritten 100 percent because it’s free.”

Artist fees took up the largest piece of Artown’s expenses in 2017, accounting for 37 percent of its budget. Overhead (33 percent), production (14 percent), marketing (9 percent) and festival operations (7 percent) make up the rest of Artown’s expenditures.

A coordinated effort

With more than 300,000 people experiencing the Artown festival every July, there’s a lot of coordination that needs to lock into place — from security to trash pick-up to inputting executive restrooms for the artists at Wingfield Park.

“Here we are in May and we’re just doing our security (contract) now,” MacMillan said. “I think sometimes you can do stuff too far out (in advance) and then you have adjustments and you have to keep sending revisions. Our security company knows they will be contracted with us. If they get 25 revisions, which on are they working off of? The fewer revisions that you have the better.”

MacMillan said in light of the Las Vegas shooting, Artown board members are having meetings with police, fire and paramedics to see what security needs to look like now.

Alexis Hill, special events manager at the city of Reno, says event organizers pay the city to provide police and make sure events go smoothly.

She added: “We are looking at additional requirements for the police for higher staffing depending on the event. And also looking at more secure perimeters and barriers for events — the bigger events.”


According to the city of Reno, it grants $200,000 to nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, such as Artown. In return, $7.9 million is generated in state and local government revenue.

“People always ask me what my favorite part about Artown is,” MacMillan said. “By the time I’ve booked these artists I’ve probably seen most of them, so my favorite part is to sit and watch the audience enjoy it. Watching them enjoy what we give to them is the gift that I get out of it.”


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