Home News & Events An Interview with World Fest Director Ken Carlson

An Interview with World Fest Director Ken Carlson

Ken Carlson has been directing Arts Midwest World Fest for 16 years. As the program enters its 8th two-year cycle in September 2019, we asked him to reflect on how it began, what’s new this year, and where he sees the program going in the future.


Arts Midwest Senior Program Director Ken Carlson and a member of Anita Singleton and the Gullah Kinfolk connect during the 2004 season of Arts Midwest World Fest. Photo by Lindajoy Fenley.

Ken, how did Arts Midwest World Fest begin?

The idea for Arts Midwest World Fest came about in 2002. We were interested in exploring new and thoughtful ways to introduce world culture and music to communities in every state in our region.

What were your goals?

We wanted to create an international program that left communities with joyful experiences, curiosity, and a set of intercultural skills that would allow them to continue exploring the world around them long after the musicians returned home. We imagined international ensembles that would offer wonderful music, embrace education, and engage in broader cultural sharing. We hoped our state arts agency partners and other funders would see value in this program and choose to support it.

There are a lot of moving pieces with World Fest. Can you break it down for us?

Sure! We’re always trying to find the best ways to help ensembles and communities find rich and enjoyable connections.

Each group has its own style and ideas, and each community brings its own personality to the partnership as well, so the process is one of constantly searching for the best way to put together each new cycle. Here are the basic components:

  • Over two years, Arts Midwest World Fest brings four international music ensembles to nine smaller Midwestern communities.
  • One community partner is selected in each of our nine member states (IL, IN, IA, OH, MN, MI, WI, ND, SD).
  • All nine partner communities host all four of the international music ensembles.
  • Each ensemble conducts a one-week residency in each community, complete with school and community workshops and a public concert at the end of the week.

How are the artists and communities chosen?

We work closely with a global network of foreign embassies and music presenters to find exciting and talented musicians. Arts Midwest World Fest’s in-school residencies might be the first time young people have gotten to spend time interacting with artists from another part of the world, and we want that experience to be a good one! So, we choose ensembles with a deep commitment to education and cultural ambassadorship in their work.

In terms of selecting communities, we work closely with state arts agencies and partner organizations to find small communities with a passion for the arts, the bandwidth to handle the logistical side of the program, and an interest in using this opportunity to build their own capacity to produce future programs within their town. We hope the community emerges from the two-year partnership with memorable experiences and a stronger sense of their community and its ability to produce cultural programming.

How do you support the communities in having that kind of success?

Arts Midwest covers the most challenging legal and financial logistics, like securing international artist visas, handling international tax and income requirements, planning regional touring, booking international travel, and preparing educational materials for audiences. Then we use our 16 years of experience in the program to give advice and encouragement to our community partners as they plan the local programming—choosing concert venues, planning community meals or other opportunities to meet the artists, and building local excitement about the program.

Looking back, how did the first season of Arts Midwest World Fest go?

The first Arts Midwest World Fest season launched in 2003. We invited nine communities to participate, engaged four ensembles, and watched and listened as the work unfolded. We couldn’t have been happier.

Our partner communities and ensembles worked very hard, and we all enjoyed story after story from all corners of the region. We witnessed wonderful and interesting connections taking place in school workshops, senior centers, factory cafeterias and on and on. We succeeded in taking the music to the people and creating meaningful connections. We were thrilled our state arts agencies saw and continue to see value in the work and that funders like 3M and, later, The Hearst Foundations saw value as well.

What impact do you think the program is having on our partner communities?

I remember thinking when this all started that one community per state every two years didn’t seem like such a big impact. I was wrong.

Sixteen years later, I marvel at the impact we have made and take real pride in looking at the long list of communities served and the list of countries and cultures introduced over the years: Mexico, Canada, Israel, China, Brazil, Norway, Japan, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Somalia, Turkey, South Africa, and Gullah.

What’s the hardest part of putting on Arts Midwest World Fest?

One of the most challenging aspects of this work is navigating legal concerns. The visa process, a necessary step if we are to host international ensembles, is time-consuming, difficult, expensive, unpredictable, and frustrating. Visa applications are hundreds of pages long, difficult to prepare, and can take many months to get an answer.

And just as frustrating as the visa process can be, so too is the tax situation associated with each tour. Artists must pay taxes, they must apply for and receive social security numbers, they must file U.S. tax returns for any paid work done here in the U.S.—I won’t go on and on, but you get the idea. It’s not easy. I think Arts Midwest does our region a great service by fighting through the tangles of visa applications and tax requirements to bring these ensembles to the region.

What’s planned for this new season, and what are you most looking forward to?

For the 2019-21 cycle we welcome three ensembles entirely new to the program: Hikaru from Japan, Hadar Maoz from Israel, and Choor from Inner Mongolia in China. We welcome back Paulo Padiha e Bando from Brazil, a group which did such a good job a few years back we can’t help but invite them back.

Six new partner communities have been invited to participate, including Rushville, IN; Bellefontaine, OH; Ironwood, MI; Huron, SD; Williston, ND; and Carbondale, IL. We’re happy to welcome back Menomonie, WI; Fairmont, MN; and Ames, IA from the early days of this program.

We have ideas to improve our study guides with help from another program at Arts Midwest, NEA Big Read, and we will tinker with various aspects of our residency models based on what we have learned from our most recent cycle.

We eagerly look forward to the fall, when tours by Hikaru and Paulo get underway.