Mara Spooner, Organizer for Maximum Ames Music Festival and Pridefest, on Their Cancellations

Organizers of the 2019 Maximum Ames Music Festival, clockwise from top left: Blake Delaney, Fred Love, Bryon Dudley, Rachel Dudley, Chad Watkins, and Mara Spooner. Photo: Mark Looney/Munn Woods Studio

Mara Spooner is a board member of the LGBTQ advocacy group Ames Pride, entertainment coordinator for Ames Pridefest 2020, and a co-producer of the Maximum Ames Music Festival. Earlier this week, both events — which were scheduled to take place on the same September weekend for the third year in a row — were inevitably canceled because of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Spooner is a well-known leader in Ames, especially prominent in the downtown arts and business communities. She produces the monthly Bartop Burlesque shows at London Underground and is the director of the Main Street nonprofit Worldly Goods.

The Informer spoke to her over email about the cancellations, the local arts scene, and the outlook for the future of these events. (Full disclosure: I was a producer of the Maximum Ames Music Festival from 2011 to 2017. Spooner is a close personal friend and former colleague.)

So, obviously you’re doing the right thing by canceling these events. But, if it’s not prying too much, what kind of emotions were you and your teams going through as you made these decisions?

So many emotions, and all of them valid! Knowing that both festivals are so important to so many people made the decisions weigh heavily for many of us. We were (and honestly, still are) worried about making the wrong decision, but the anxiety of hosting a community celebration with the threat of such a dangerous communicable disease won. Many of us agreed that there was an overwhelming sense of relief after having made the decisions to effectively cancel both events. We all feel an incredible amount of sadness knowing that the events we love producing and attending will not be happening — but also feel excitement and anticipation about what other ways we “gather together” to celebrate one another.

We want to be able to continue to serve our communities and have safe and inclusive spaces to do so. There is not currently a space that is safe to gather. We cancel our events so that when we have them next, no one is missing.

What kind of feedback are you hearing from artists?

At the time of this interview we have only JUST announced our cancellations. The immediate reaction from our artists seems to be sadness, understanding, and a smattering of gratitude.

I was in contact with a few more widely known/national drag acts, in my role as entertainment coordinator for Ames Pridefest 2020. Before making our decisions to cancel both fests I had reached out to them about any changes they might be making to their contracts (into which we had not yet entered, thankfully) or their feelings about touring this fall. The ones who responded said that they were holding off on signing anything for a while. The apprehension to “move forward as usual” is industry-wide.

How about sponsors, do you have a sense of where they’re at? I assume there’s a lot of belt-tightening going on in the business community. Do you think fundraising is going to look different moving forward?

Ability to secure sponsorship is one of the reasons we decided to not hold our events. While maintaining our community’s health and safety has been the most important deciding factor, the economic portion should not be forgotten.

Events like Maximum Ames Music Festival and Ames Pridefest are driven by many, many, many hours of volunteer service and the monetary support from our community of business owners as well as private and public agencies. Our current economic climate creates a difficult predicament for organizations that rely heavily on donated money — our sponsors are working to keep their lights on and their families fed.

Our goal is to feature some of our long-time sponsors and vendors in whatever it is that we do next!

Mick Douch on stage at Bandshell Park for the first Ames Pridefest in 2017. Photo: Mark Looney/Munn Woods Studio

You’re looking at doing some virtual events. I’ve seen that artists are doing this but I don’t know much about it. Is there a way for artists and events to monetize them? Could sponsors be involved in virtual events in some way?

We’re hoping so!

For many of us it is brand new territory, so we’re looking at what others are doing — especially independent artists. Especially since the middle of March, artists have seriously stepped up their web-based game. We hope to be able to produce some events that can help get some money into some hands!

We are absolutely open to any ideas or collaborations that folks might be interested in. We’d love to expand the teams!

The Ames scene is small but tight-knit and that’s what makes it great. A time of crisis is exactly when a tight creative community could rally, hug it out and be there for each other. But that’s exactly what cannot happen right now. No one knows the future but, as a leader, how do you think the local arts scene bounces back from this?

I’ll tell you what, I hope it’s with one big ol’ consensual hug!

Until the time comes when it is safe for a sweaty dance party, I think we all need to do our best to be kind and patient with ourselves and one another. We are living in an unprecedented time and that comes with a lot of feelings and consequences, many of which we cannot predict or anticipate. I believe that much of the Ames arts and music scenes are resilient by nature. We are all drawn to one another because of the passions we share and the care we have for one another. We should be counting on that to remain the same!

There have been lots of instances of folks coming together virtually and finding ways to collaborate digitally, both with live-streamed performances and produced video content. Our challenge will be to reach those without regular access to the technology being used.

It’s a dark time with a lot of uncertainty, but are you seeing anything locally that makes you hopeful?

Yes! Many local musicians have been doing live streams from their homes, porches, wherever they can find space. Reliable Street held a handful of drive-in movies. Bartop Burlesque is still creating a show every month. Cirque Wonderland (aerial studio in Des Moines) has produced a couple of shows. There are clubs all around producing drag and burlesque shows via Facebook, Twitch, Youtube, Vimeo, and other platforms that I don’t know about (yet!).

Nate Logsdon is a writer, editor, and indexer from Ames. He was a founding editor of the Ames Progressive and contributing editor at the Iowa Informer.