Autumn Wiggins founded the Strange Folk Festival ten years ago. Will it continue without her?
“It had to stop. It had to stop.”
Autumn Wiggins is crying into the phone, trying to hide her tears from customers as her South Grand shop, Upcycle Exchange, opens for the day.
If she had her way, Wiggins would be focused on her customers, her business, and the ever-growing list of creative projects popping into her brain. Instead, she feels locked in a battle with her hometown over the legacy of her biggest success.
Wiggins founded the Strange Folk Festival in O’Fallon, Illinois, a decade ago. After growing the event into the Midwest’s largest outdoor indie art festival, she’s ready to move on and put Strange Folk on hiatus. But O’Fallon is pushing to continue the festival that Wiggins says belongs to her.
“Strange Folk was supposed to be a self-funded, self-contained thing from the beginning,” Wiggins tells SLM. “It was mine to do with as I please, because I never signed anything that said that they owned it.”
O’Fallon Parks and Recreation director Mary Jeanne Hutchison tells SLM she can’t respond to Wiggins claims pending possible legal action, but she says the department was surprised by Wiggins’ interpretation of the event.
“The arts commission along with the department has held this event for many years,” Hutchison says in an email. “We appreciate Autumn’s volunteering...This is a production implemented by a lot of people.”
Courtesy of Autumn Wiggins
Autumn Wiggins working on the Strange Folk Festival.
Wiggins says she told the city’s arts commission in January that she was walking away from the festival. She dreamed of relaunching Strange Folk in a few years, possibly in a new location, after spending time focusing on other projects.
So Wiggins was surprised when the city continued organizing a Strange Folk Festival for September 2015. Parks department employees asked for her passwords, so they could access the festival’s social-media accounts. An email sent to vendors said applications for this year’s festival were due in May and included an altered version of the 2014 illustrated logo. Wiggins says the department even purchased the .org version of the festival’s website URL.
"I shouldn't have to hand my passwords over," Wiggins says. "I should just be able to end it."
With financial support from her friends—the same friends who helped her pay for new windows after Upcycle Exchange was vandalized during last year’s protests—Wiggins applied to purchase the trademark for the Strange Folk Festival name and sent cease-and-desist letters to the city to stop the festival. [The trademark office says it hasn't yet ruled on Wiggins' application.]
That’s when she got a call from the O’Fallon Police Department.
Police told her the parks department had reported as stolen the $1,700 MacBook Pro that Wiggins purchased last year with city funds (and, she says, permission) to help with development and graphic design work for the festival.
“Because the only evidence the staff had was a credit card receipt with my signature, the police would not seize [the laptop] as stolen property,” Wiggins writes in a statement posted to the festival’s website. “I have cooperated fully with them, signing over said MacBook into an evidence locker, and was given a Receipt of Property pending civil litigation.”
To Wiggins, the city’s efforts to continue the festival without her are absurd.
“It’s almost like the city doesn’t realize what I do,” Wiggins says. “I was able to start an event like that because I’m a programmer, and I can collect data and I can make code.”
Wiggins says she also managed the festival’s branding, marketing, social media, vendor selection, and entertainment lineup each year while the city helped her with trash clean-up and processing vendors’ fees.
“It’s a full package of jobs that I do for this festival, but the festival isn’t paying me near what I would be getting if I was working for somebody,” Wiggins says. She says she received a stipend for her work on the festival, but never worked as an official O’Fallon employee and never received a salary. “I wasn’t working for anybody. I was doing it to do something good.”
Wiggins starts to cry again as she remembers how happy she was at the end of last year’s festival, which she thought would be the last.
“My shop turns into tatters because I’m so into Strange Folk. I’m stressed out all the time,” Wiggins says with a gulp. “It had to stop.”
Wiggins is afraid the conflict has irreparably marred her relationship with her hometown, but she’s not surrendering the festival that took her 10 years to build.
“O’Fallon can do anything they want that weekend,” Wiggins says. “They just can’t call it Strange Folk.”