The O+ Festival: a Case Study in What Happens When You Think Outside of the Box

 Photo credit for Gaia's "Pronkstilleven" mural image: Andy Milford

 Photo credit for Gaia's "Pronkstilleven" mural image: Andy Milford

Long before healthcare really captured politicians’ attention, before the Affordable Healthcare Act, and before the current highly contentious attempts to fix our healthcare system, a group of artists, healthcare providers and enthusiastic friends dreamed up and threw the first O+ Festival, their creative solution to helping solve the country’s healthcare woes. The O+ Festival (pronounced o-positive) started as a small celebration in Kingston, NY with artists and musicians donating their talents in exchange for care donated by dentists, doctors, nurses, acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists, and more.

The seed of this idea was born from the desire to get a favorite band to a largely forgotten upstate NY city. With a sprinkle of passion, a desire to make a difference, and a love of art and music, that seed soon grew into a community-supported movement towards solving the uninsured and underinsured health needs of artists and musicians and creating more awareness about the overall healthcare problems across the nation. What was unforeseen at the time of that first Festival was the bounty of fruit that would be born from that tiny original idea. O+ was about so much more than healthcare.  

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A Community is Awakened

They say it takes a village, and O+ was no exception to that famed adage. What is not immediately apparent from those words however, is that the village needs something to do, that without a reason to bring it together, it’s not really a village anymore. O+ has from the day it was born been sustained by the generosity of its “village.” Individuals and businesses donated time, services and goods to ensure the grassroots event would take place. Everywhere you looked, people were giving with no expectation of receiving something in return other than to be a part of something bigger than them. From that point forward, the community started working together in ways it hadn’t imagined before, and the synergy and enthusiasm about co-creating a vibrant and uplifting community event together is still palpable today and spreading. Many arts organizations and community-building events take place year-round in what was largely a one or two venue town with most galleries and studios struggling to stay alive. Kingston is now a destination city for the weary New York City dweller looking for a better way to connect with their neighbors, to feel a part of something special, and to have more meaning in their life.

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An Economy is Revitalized

At the time of the first O+ Festival in Kingston, NY, the Uptown historic neighborhood called the Stockade was still struggling to rebuild after major shifts in the economy. A large employer had closed its doors taking with it jobs and money, and the malls and strip malls had moved in making it difficult for the small business owners to compete.  Buildings were unattended to and many storefronts were vacant. For Festival planners, this made for a perfect canvas from which to create a weekend-long celebration with art and music filling those vacant spaces. That was all it took for others to see the possibilities of what the Stockade had to offer. Now, real estate investors from as far as California are eyeing Kingston as an up-and-coming real estate market, where prices have more than doubled since 2010. Entrepreneurs, makers, artists and musicians have filled the vacancies in the Stockade and have begun to move into other parts of Kingston. In addition to what O+ has been able to do to help artists and musicians get better care, the Festival has literally breathed new life into what was once a sleepy and economically stagnant town in upstate New York.

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Spreading the LO+VE

That first festival occurred in 2010, and now eight years later, O+ has provided over 2000 wellness care visits to over 700 artists and musicians across the country. Visitors swept away by the magic of the Festival weekend wanted to bring it back home with them and there began the expansion to cities outside of Kingston. As a result, the Festival has spread to cities across the country including San Francisco, CA, Petaluma, CA, Chicago, IL, Bronx, NY, Haverhill, MA, and Poughkeepsie, NY. The desire to build something together is strong and growing, and O+ has built a formula that allows other communities to plug into it to help revitalize and uplift in ways unique to their community’s needs.

How to Support Your Mission

What started as a modest idea to bring a band to town blossomed and will continue to grow to fulfill the needs of communities, and the health and well-being of those who inhabit them. Whether you are a non-profit, for-profit, grass-roots, or neighborhood organization, your mission will undoubtedly be better served if you remember these guiding principles revealed from the evolution of the O+ Festival. People will work really hard when they feel passionate about something. People are generous. People want to help one another. People long for community. People long to have purpose and feel like they are making a difference somehow. There’s power in empowering people -- it enables network connections that are better able at finding solutions organically. Creativity is key -- keep creativity flowing, don’t forget about the power in the arts to awaken and energize.

How do you replicate this kind of magic in your mission? How do you galvanize your team, inspire your staff, fulfill them on a deeply personal level, build something together, all the while supporting the health of your organization? Was O+ just the perfect storm, a once-in-a-lifetime experience? I say no. It just requires a purpose, a little risk-taking, and a lot of thinking outside of the box. Come be a part of it yourself, every October, Columbus Day weekend in Kingston, NY -- Art, Music, Wellness and a big blossoming community awaits you.

Theresa Lyn Widmann
Board Chair, O+ Festival