Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

How Are Ethnic Festivals Doing?

Most successful is Irish Fest, most troubled is Festa Italiana. And the rest?

By - May 10th, 2022 05:53 pm
Irish Fest 2018. Photo taken August 18th, 2018 by Jack Fennimore.

Irish Fest 2018. Photo taken August 18th, 2018 by Jack Fennimore.

In 1977, Mexican Fiesta was held on the Summerfest grounds. It was the first of what became a growing group of ethnic festivals held there. Festa Italiana started in 1978, Irish Fest and German Fest in 1981 and Polish Fest in 1982. They were followed in later years by African World Festival, Indian Summer and Asian Moon festival, but all three went out of business after being held for some years at the Summerfest grounds.

The COVID-19 pandemic was tough for Milwaukee’s remaining ethnic festivals, with many cancelling their summer festival for two years straight. Festa Italiana cited the pandemic as a contributing cause to its financial perilous situation. So how are the other festivals doing? Urban Milwaukee did a review of their annual federal 990 tax forms, required of all non-profits, to find out.

The big winner seems to be Irish Fest, which is run by the nonprofit CelticMKE, which owns its own building, the CelticMKE Center, at 1532 Wauwatosa Ave. in Wauwatosa. At the end of 2019, the group had a $3 million annual budget, owned $884,000 in publicly traded securities, $1.6 million in savings and temporary cash investments and had no mortgage on a building and land with an estimated value (after depreciation) worth some $412,000.

There is no separate accounting for Irish Fest, but it appears to be a big success, drawing about 100,000 customers each year for the four-day festival. The group did cancel the festival in 2020, but was able to hold it in 2021 (without bringing in international performers) and plans business as usual this summer, with many groups coming from abroad, particularly Ireland, to perform.

“We are very fortunate to be where we are,” says Mike Mitchell, executive director of CelticMKE, “with the world’s largest Irish festival, which our volunteers — over 4,000 — and a unique venue at the lakefront have made possible.”

Over the years the group has developed the The Irish Fest Choir, a group of young adults who perform traditional Irish and Irish American songs, a school of music, a summer school program, and the Milwaukee Irish Fest Foundation to support the organization’s philanthropic efforts.

The model followed by Irish Fest — using ethnic pride to create not just a festival, but a community center and other events — is one that other ethnic groups in town have followed as well.

Indeed, the approach was probably originated locally by Mexican Fiesta, which is run by the Wisconsin Hispanic Scholarship Foundation, Inc., located at 2997 S. 20th St. At the end of 2019, the group had a $1.7 million annual budget, $758,000 in cash, $153,0000 in savings and listed a building and land (with no mortgage) worth nearly $1.2 million. While there is no separate breakout for the festival, it generated $1.46 million in revenue in 2019, and left the parent organization with net revenue of just over $96,000. And Mexican Fiesta was held last year with reported attendance of 85,000.

The group also books events at Flores Hall in its building, which its website notes offers “guaranteed exemplary service, elegant standards” and a capacity for 420 people. But the heart of the organization is its scholarship program, which has “has fundraised over 1.7 million in scholarship dollars” since 1987, the website notes. (The group did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.)

Like the other groups, Polish Fest is run by a parent organization, the Polish Heritage Alliance, Inc., which owns its own building at 6941 S. 68th St. in Franklin. “It was built in 2000,” says the group’s executive director, Jeff Kuderski. “The mortgage is fully paid off.”

The organization had an annual budget of nearly $1.1 million in 2019, with a net asset balance of $1.5 million, including some $184,000 in cash and a building and land with a value of nearly $1.4 million

The group typically has a small annual net income, says Kuderski, but not from the three-day Polish Fest, which lost nearly $150,000 in 2019, its tax form says. But the group also operated a banquet hall at its headquarters in Franklin and also offers a wide range of Polish oriented programs, including art exhibits, music performances, lectures, historical exhibits, Polish language classes and cooking demonstrations. It earned more than $100,000 in 2019 from fundraising and membership dues.

Unlike the other groups, German Fest has no parent organization and seems less active: its website lists no other programming besides the festival. For its 2018-2019 year the group had a $1.5 million budget, which dropped to just $117,534 the following year, because the festival was cancelled due to the pandemic. Even so the group had a net asset balance of just over $1 million, with $120,000 in cash, nearly $611,000 in savings and temporary cash investments, and lists a building and land worth just over $521,000, with a mortgage of just under $194,000.

“We’re fine, we have no financial issues,” says German Fest board member Deb Wolf, who serves as director of ads and promotions. The group plans to bring back German Fest for its 40th anniversary in July, after a two-year absence.

Germanfest is headquartered in Menomonee Falls at W140 N. 4561 Lilly Rd. Local German clubs use the building for a meeting place.

In contrast to these four groups, which seem very successful, Festa Italiana has a negative fund balance of $1 million and cancelled its festival this year due to the financial challenges it faces, as Urban Milwaukee has reported. Rose Anne Fritchie, president of the festival’s parent group, the Italian Community Center, says the group is taking steps to shore up its finances.

One thought on “Murphy’s Law: How Are Ethnic Festivals Doing?”

  1. Polaris says:

    One of these things is not like the others… Holy smokes!

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