WHITESBURG — Perhaps no single community event is more responsible for keeping mountain arts and culture alive than the annual Seedtime on the Cumberland Festival in Letcher County.
For one weekend each summer, scores of mountain artists, musicians, dancers, storytellers and craftspeople celebrate their work alongside residents and regional tourists.
Spearheaded by Appalshop, a non-profit arts and education center with more than 40 years of experience in exploring mountain issues and preserving mountain culture, the summer festival is a boon for the local economy, packing hotel rooms in the region and filling restaurants and shops with arts lovers.
But when organizers sat down to begin planning this year's Seedtime on the Cumberland festival, which started Thursday and runs through Saturday, they knew they were at a crossroads.
For one thing, the festival was strapped for cash.
A bevy of state, federal and private funding sources aimed at supporting rural arts, funding that had been plentiful in years past, was no longer available, putting the festival's future in jeopardy.
"Without assistance from new sources, we were faced with stripping down to a bare minimum or even going on hiatus, which is how some of our peer festivals are handling these changes," festival organizer and Appalshop communications director Mark Kidd said.
A shortage of money didn't mean a shortage of enthusiasm.
The support that the festival had established over the years, combined with the buzz about the area's burgeoning arts scene, inspired numerous community groups and residents to step in and find creative ways to keep the festival going.
"Seedtime has always been helped and supported by other non-profits, businesses, and local governments," Kidd said, "but in 2010, we decided to take our ideas and concerns about the future of Seedtime out into the region, asking a lot of the folks who had helped in small ways before what they would like to see happen or whether their organization would like to participate in some way."
The community response was staggering.
The Carcassonne Community Center, host of one of the longest-running square dances in the country, wanted to get involved. Hobos Diner, a Whitesburg restaurant that organizes local motorcycle rides, suggested a Ride for the Arts event, with creative pit stops from Hindman to Whitesburg. U.S. Forest Service member Lois Boggs wanted to lead a Saturday morning bird-watching hike.
Folks who had never before participated came forward with ideas. Appalshop moved the planning meetings from business hours to evenings to allow for greater public input.
Suddenly no longer just an Appalshop undertaking, the festival became a community collaboration, which not only has saved the festival but expanded it.
"We have, in fact, more events scheduled in more venues than at any Seedtime in at least six years," Kidd said.
This year's offerings include a dizzying sampling of arts events from every major discipline. From literary readings and film screenings to a seed-spittin' and hollerin' contest, the weekend is packed with activities.
The festival also has outgrown its home at Appalshop, whose parking lot housed most of the activity in years past, and spilled out into the community.
This is the first year that Seedtime will coincide with Artwalk, a quarterly visual arts event, similar to Lexington's Gallery Hop, that features regional artists at galleries and businesses around Whitesburg.
Visual artist Pam Meade drives 90 miles from her home in West Liberty to participate in the Artwalk and has attended Seedtime for years.
"The festival begins even before you reach Whitesburg," she said. "Tuning into WMMT-88.7 FM in the car and you start hearing the music, the literary readings."
Adding Artwalk to the mix, she said, is an economic and creative win for regional artists.
"Seedtime has always been an important festival for area artists," Meade said. "There is always an art-loving crowd attending, and good sales, too."
Artwalk is just in its second year, but it too is giving regional artists a place to exhibit and sell their work.
Combining the events this year gives people a chance to view works by more than 50 artists.
Whether it's visual art, mountain music and square dancing, film and literature, or even a ride through the mountains on your Harley, the community-led 24th annual Seedtime on the Cumberland is a festival for, and rather literally, by everyone.