On Saturday, June 16, thousands ignored the rain and scorching heat to check out the Walker Art Center’s 20th annual Rock the Garden music festival. As the local beer flowed, fans swarmed the museum’s hillside and iconic sculpture garden to soak in a diverse lineup of local and international acts including headliner Father John Misty, Feist, Chastity Brown, Kamasi Washington and P.O.S. (and a surprise guest appearance from Current DJ Mark Wheat). But what exactly goes into planning the Walker’s biggest event of the year? Ben Geffen, director of program services for the museum and Rock the Garden event coordinator, filled us in.
Fresh from a brief post-event break, Geffen revealed the museum’s team doesn’t waste much time soaking in the afterglow of another successful summer shindig. “Typically, there’s an event presale each December so we try to get things rolling in planning for the next year’s event right away. Official meetings typically start in October, but as far as the bands booked … that’s always an ongoing conversation that seems to never stop. As soon as the bands are booked [for the upcoming event] we start looking into bands for the next year,” says Geffen.
While planning ahead is a necessity for an event as large as Rock the Garden, Geffen finds the museum’s partnership with local radio station The Current has been key to the festival’s success. “Neither of our organizations is really scaled to do the event on our own, so our partnership with The Current is really what makes Rock the Garden work so well. [The partnership] makes for a strong team of smart, committed and hardworking people that are in charge of their own piece and communicate that piece to the rest of the group. It’s really a very decentralized process,” says Geffen. While the Walker’s team runs many of the general operations, The Current team is a key part of the event’s marketing campaign and management of ticket sales, running the event box office through its relationship with Etix. The museums’ performing arts department and The Current’s programming department also work together to identify bands for the future lineup, make offers and coordinate lineup logistics.
Though final attendance numbers and event recap meetings are a ways off, Geffen and his team are happy with the goals achieved through this year’s priorities, including producing a zero-waste event and increased accessibility for all attendees. “We had a stronger focus on accessibility this year and we added additional accessibility to several areas on the grounds to make sure everyone can see the event and experience it in the same way.”
Attendee interaction and engagement was also a high priority. Rock the Garden has historically been an event where many attendees brought a blanket and camped out for the day. After recent renovations on museum grounds rapped up last June, the event team was more limited in space available on the museum’s hillside. The Rock the Garden team used the change as an opportunity to add a second stage, book additional bands and encourage attendees to get up and explore. “In addition to allowing us to bring in more bands, and different kinds of bands at that, the second stage allowed us to engage the people who typically sit in one place all day. It wouldn’t be a comfortable event if everyone just had a little home base on the hill anymore. There wouldn’t be enough room for everyone to squeeze in. With this new stage, there’s somewhere else to go, there’s somewhere to cool off and explore and we think that’s an exciting new element to the event,” says Geffen.