Big Ears Gets in Gear

Patti Smith

Big Ears Gets in Gear

As County Commission discusses public funding of the acclaimed music and arts festival, the lineup grows and ticket sales surge.

by jesse fox mayshark • november 13, 2019


Patti Smith (photo by steven sebring)

Tuesday was a good day for the Big Ears Festival, Knoxville’s internationally acclaimed spring extravaganza of adventurous music and art.

The county may add a $25,000 contribution to support Big Ears, which draws visitors from across the globe.

In the morning, the festival announced some significant additions to its already well-stocked lineup for the 2020 edition, which will take place March 26-29 at venues in and around downtown.

At the top of the list of new names is protopunk singer and poet Patti Smith, who will perform with her band and will also present a literary program and conversation during the weekend. (In recent years, Smith has been lauded as much for her writing as her music; her 2010 memoir Just Kids, about her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in bohemian 1970s New York, won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.)

“We made the first overtures to Patti several years ago, and it’s been an ongoing discussion,” said Ashley Capps, the CEO of A.C. Entertainment. “Finally the sun and the moon and the stars aligned, and I couldn’t be happier with how it all came together.” 

And yesterday evening, Knox County Commission discussed a proposal by Commission Chair Hugh Nystrom to add public funding for the festival to this year’s county budget.

In 2018, the first year the festival incorporated as a nonprofit organization, Big Ears received grants of $40,000 from the City of Knoxville and $25,000 from Knox County. This year, the city contributed another $40,000 to support public programming affiliated with the festival, but it was left out of the county’s $375,000 in contracts with the Knoxville Arts & Culture Alliance.

“It’s one of the most impactful things we do to bring people to our community that have never been here before,” Nystrom said of the festival. “Because of Big Ears, we’re getting positive press about our community all over the United States and around the world.”

The county has been a less enthusiastic arts patron than the city in recent years, and its arts-related funding comes primarily through hotel-motel taxes that must by law be spent to promote tourism. County Mayor Glenn Jacobs has made clear he expects to see tangible results for country contributions.

Capps said that’s an easy case to make for Big Ears, which draws thousands of attendees from across the country and even some international visitors.

“We certainly have very, very strong data that shows the impact that the festival has,” Capps said. Downtown hotels and restaurants report that Big Ears weekend is one of the busiest of the year, rivaled only by University of Tennessee graduation weekend.

The city and county contributions are a small part of Big Ears’ budget, which Capps said this year is right around $2 million. The public funding helps support free components of the festival, which Capps said are equally appealing to its paid attendees and Knoxvillians who can’t afford the $250 weekend passes.

While performances by artists like Smith are the center of Big Ears, Capps said, “The spokes of the wheel are the community outreach and engagement with the public.”

And if you’re planning to buy tickets, you might not want to wait too long. Capps said sales for 2020 are already at the level they were in January for the 2019 festival. “This year when we put tickets on sale, they came out of the box like never before,” he said. “Our first-day sales were triple or quadruple what they were before.”

Nystrom’s proposal to again allocate $25,000 to the festival met with generally positive response from his fellow commissioners. 

“This is a very important festival for downtown,” said Commissioner Randy Smith (no relation to Patti). “From what I understand, it’s one of our most-booked weekends.”

Commission will take up the matter at its regular monthly meeting next Monday.