For two decades, the indisputable highlight of Olympia’s spring arts season was Arts Walk and its attendant, handcrafted parade, the Procession of the Species. Those events will go on hiatus this year due to SARS-CoV-2 and the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Formerly scheduled for April 24 and 25, the revised date of the procession remains unclear as of April 7.
Eli Sterling is the director of Earthbound Productions, the nonprofit that organizes the procession every year. Appropriately for a period of social distancing, OLY ARTS conversed with Sterling via email about this necessary act of delayed gratification.
“As you know,” Sterling began, “I have held, since its inception, an ardent discipline to present the procession in a manner that delivers the fullest opportunity for kindness and for acceptance of who we are as humans upon this planet. … Certainly, missing out on co-celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and the 25th anniversary of the procession is disappointing on any number of levels, from advancing environmental concerns to strengthening our community’s identity through benchmarks of legacy. Just as importantly, we also lost a significant opportunity to … elevate the dignity of the human spirit by enhancing the cultural exchange between our community and the natural world.”
Indeed, Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day, in his words a “national teach-in on the environment,” to be celebrated for the first time on April 22, 1970. It was conceived in response to an oil spill off California the year before.
“Regarding the loss of an affiliation with the date of Earth Day itself,” Sterling continued, “the repercussions may actually be advantageous in two respects: One, [this] potentially expands the reach of Earth Day as a behavior throughout other parts of the calendar year. And two, a different calendar setting provides a bit of a reset, allowing us to refresh the cultural enrichment of such a celebration within our community regardless of when it actually happens.”
We asked Sterling about the expected financial loss to the community of postponing Earth Day and the Procession of the Species. “Financial impact is a great question,” he replied, “and one that I have asked the City [of Olympia] and the Downtown Business Association on numerous occasions, and I have never been given an answer.”
Sterling continued, “What we do know from direct inquiries is that restaurants and bars consistently put the procession weekend in their top five income-generating periods of the year, although none will reveal financial data. Additionally, retail businesses were seeing increased sales on the Saturday prior the procession, as more people were spending the day in town, rather than showing up only for the procession. From our production counts over the years, we have a direct correlation between participants and spectators of 1-10. Our base average is 2,000 participants and 20,000 viewers with 5 percent from beyond Thurston County. Our high was 3,000-30,0000 in 2004. So regardless of hard numbers, we can clearly see there’s a lot of people spending money downtown.”
Sterling added, “This past year we found a similar ratio with the Luminary Procession on Friday evening of Spring Arts Walk [with] nearly 500 luminary participants and well over 5,000 spectators. The police on hand estimated that there had not been that many people on Friday night of Spring Arts Walk over the past 10 years. Our check-in with local businesses and police found that by all accounts, everyone was totally stoked by the results of holding the Luminary Procession at 8:30 [p.m.] rather than 9:30 as in previous years. Each year, we also collect $1,000 to $2,000 worth of donated canned goods for the Food Bank as a ‘registration fee’ for participation in the procession.”
Looking forward, Sterling explained, the “intention is to explore artistic expressions that will enhance appreciation for the hard lessons we are learning now regarding the common good.” The safety and well-being of procession participants and viewers alike, however, remains of paramount importance. Thus, “there are no plans to ruffle up our production-crew feathers until after the K-12 and college school year is well underway in late September. Such a timeline does mean the procession will not be repositioned to participate in the fall Arts Walk. It does however, put us within range of a potential Day of the Dead procession in November — which may well be a more appropriate mindset, especially with respect to the not-too-distant future. Even so, such a consideration would require alert and steadfast messaging [about] the lessons of appreciation we are learning now and how those very lessons may tend to wither in this election year. But I am hopeful.”
Procession of the Species
From Jefferson St. and Legion Way to Water St. and Capitol Way, Olympia