ArtsQuest CEO Kassie Hilgert reflects on their 36th year in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
“Being surrounded by and immersed in arts and culture opens your mind in a way that few other things do,” said Kassie Hilgert, CEO of ArtsQuest, a nonprofit whose biggest event is Musikfest. “Artists, we've always said, are some of the greatest problem solvers in the world.”
With this in mind, it’s no wonder that ArtsQuest, based in Bethlehem, PA, holds “4,000 classes, concerts, and camps a year,” according to Kassie. And to help ensure more people in the community can attend those offerings, 45% are free.
“There’s nothing more affordable than free,” said Kassie. “The first part of our mission is to increase access to the arts. The second part of our mission is to use arts and culture for urban revitalization.”
Kassie has always had a passion for the arts – she was offered a theater scholarship at Penn State University. But it wasn’t until 2008 when she left a corporate career behind to join ArtsQuest that she was able to align her career with this passion. It was a risk, but it was a risk that paid off.
“In 2008, we basically ran two festivals and The Banana Factory,” said Kassie. The Banana Factory is a former banana distribution warehouse that has been converted into ArtsQuest visual arts education program’s studios, galleries, and classrooms. “Now we're a 365-day-a-year operation attracting about two million people a year from 47 states and six countries.”
ArtsQuest’s biggest event of the year is Musikfest, a music and art festival that spans 10 days and includes 500 shows, only 10 of which require a paid ticket. Musikfest was recently voted the “best festival in North America” in a USA Today reader poll. The event is run by around 1,300 volunteers and attended by nearly one million people. Guardian, a long-time sponsor of Musikfest, has more than 100 employees volunteering at the event.
Guardian’s theme this year at Musikfest is female empowerment, and we are proud to host a booth dedicated to talking about the women who empower us. Every person who visits Guardian’s booth and participates will receive a wellness kit – and for each kit we hand out, another will be donated to Turning Point, a local nonprofit dedicated to helping families who are survivors of abuse.
Stages at Musikfest are called “platz” which is German for “place,” to honor the city’s Germanic heritage. This year, we’re excited to sponsor the Zinzenplatz, named for Countess Benigna von Zinzendorf. The name was chosen via a public contest and honors an extraordinary person who did so much for her community and women in 18th-century colonial America.
“When the Countess' name came up, I fell in love with it,” said Kassie. “When you look at what she did, starting the first all-girls' school in the colonial state when she was 16 years old. What was so unique about her school, besides just being an all-girls school, was they taught the same curriculum that they taught boys. That was revolutionary at the time.”
ArtsQuest understands the impact their festival has and works hard to involve the entire community and give them a voice. “I think organizations like us have a particular responsibility to make sure that every part of our community is represented and that there is a seat at the table for them,” said Kassie.
And that impact is also deeply felt throughout the region’s businesses.
“From an economic development standpoint, the festival has about a $58-million economic impact on the city and surrounding areas for those 10 days,” said Kassie. “Everything from hotel rooms, to local restaurants, to the 40 food vendors at the festival. Those are all small businesses that are relying on those 10 days to help make some of their major income for the year.”
The volunteers at Musikfest are a phenomenon of their own, and Guardian employees alone put in over 800 volunteer hours last summer. In Kassie’s opinion, “the volunteers run the festival.”
Thirteen of the volunteers have worked at the festival all 36 years of its existence, including retired Guardian colleague Luanna LaBriola, who was featured in The Morning Call, Lehigh Valley’s leading media outlet.
“This is a group of people that say, ‘this is what I do every year.’ They take time off work. They've retired. They pull their friends in. They pull in family members from out of state. And this is what they do every July and August.”
With hundreds of concerts, dance performances, comedy shows, art exhibits, and historic galleries, there is something at Musikfest for everyone.