“We want to re-energize what we do while staying rooted in tradition but also while making it relevant to the young folks,” said Charlie Seeman, executive director of the Western Folk Life Center, which organizes the weeklong festival. “A lot of the first cowboy poets were already old guys 30 years ago when we started this. We made a very deliberate effort to reach out this year to broaden our appeal. Our job is to let the young people tell their stories about what is important about their lives today.”
To that end, this year’s gathering — which was expected to sell more than $400,000 in tickets to dozens of events across four venues to an estimated 6,000 attendees — is overwhelmed by the modern, inclusive touches. A pre-event media campaign emphasized the forward-looking theme, “Expressing the Rural West — into the Future” via tweets and Facebook posts, and many performances are being live-streamed. One of the marquee poets, soft-spoken 21-year-old New Mexico rancher Forrest Mackey, won his slot in a YouTube contest for poets under 35. Most of the podiums and stages are adorned with recommended hashtags and reminders to Instagram it all.
In addition, this year’s exhibition at the Western Folk Life Center’s Wiegand Gallery displays leather, silver, weaving and photographic works by artists under 40, all of whose bios and wares are available for view on Facebook. They include horse saddles with intricate flower print engravings that are priced at more than $10,000.
Seeman said he thinks these efforts have paid off in a 15 percent bump in attendance from last year and the best attendance since the peak 25th anniversary year of 2009. The entire event costs about $750,000 to execute, he said, with about $350,000 coming from corporate and private sponsors.