Atlanta Jewish Music Festival Executive Director Russell Gottschalk, who announced last week he is leaving the organization in June, says a culmination of factors led to his decision.
“It was me reaching the limit of what we could do with the community and not having any more real space to grow,” he said in a phone interview. “The fact of the matter is that our community is established, and I don’t think I’m able to continue growing it as I have been for the last nine years.”
The festival launched in 2010 as one-day event with just four bands at a single location, and it sold out. The following year, with funding help from a Jewish foundation, it became a three-day festival at multiple venues, and it increased to five days in 2012.
Year-round programming was added to the mix as well, increasing the number of people reached by AJMF events to nearly 18,000, compared with about 6,500 at the three-week spring festival alone.
“As we continued to grow, we became the go-to resource for collaborators seeking the production and curatorial expertise needed to inspire community through live Jewish music experiences,” Gottschalk wrote on the AJMF website. “Since 2015, we’ve made our Fall calendar nearly as productive as our Spring Festival with large, community collaborations with The Shabbat Project and the Atlanta Kosher BBQ Festival.”
But he also wrote that, over the years, early supporters started to fall off. “Some people that were instrumental in the first few seasons of AJMF no longer attend the festival or support our development efforts. This bums me out because I partially blame myself for failing to maintain these relationships.”
In the interview, Gottschalk elaborated: “It was not about people backing away, but more a case of maxing out.”
What did he enjoy the most during his tenure as director? “What I’ve been most excited about is some of the international performers we’ve brought in. I think we’ve presented some really cool music. Yemen Blues was great (at this year’s festival). A-Wa is a similar band we brought in a couple of years ago. That was a fun party,” he said.
“These Israeli artists are so talented, and it’s so cool that AJMF gets to present them. I think there will continue to be a focus on international artists because it’s just a cool part of the festival. That type of event is something I’m really proud of.”
The AJMF board is setting up a search for new director, “and I’m assuming they’re going to find some great candidate for the job,” Gottschalk said. “The plan is to have this next person in place by July 1, which would be the start of AJMF10, and then it’s back on the horse again: start to plan the festival and fundraising activities for the fall, getting the new board established and working well together. Fortunately, we have some people on the board who will still be involved this year, and we have enough people outside of me that I think will make the transition smooth.”
Gottschalk is not sure what he will do next. “I will put some thought into it and hopefully have a better idea towards the summer. I’ll be involved with AJMF for several weeks still.”