ben anderson

Leaving on a high note

News, Art, Music, Stage
Ben Anderson reflects on his time with the PPAF and his abrupt resignation

During his 12 years as president of the Prescott Park Arts Festival, Ben Anderson experienced some memorable moments.

There was the time members of The Head and the Heart jumped in the river after their sound check. Or the time a storm forced staff to cut off the power during Spirit Family Reunion’s performance at the Folk Festival. In response, the band hopped off the stage and played acoustic in the grass, surrounded by the audience. Then headliner Martin Sexton played an acoustic set while lightning zapped across the sky.

“That energy was unbeatable,” Anderson said by phone on Friday.

Any future experiences at Prescott Park in Portsmouth will be purely as a spectator, as Anderson has abruptly resigned as president. Asked what spurred his resignation shortly after wrapping up the festival’s 45th season, Anderson said the time was right.

“It’s been a really rewarding 12 years, but it’s also been a grind and taken its toll,” he said.

John Tabor, chair of the Prescott Park Board of Directors, praised Anderson for producing another successful season in 2019, one that had “great financial results.”

Asked by phone if the board urged Anderson to resign, Tabor said, “I’m not going to comment on that.” He later clarified in an email that Anderson was not asked to resign.

Under Anderson’s watch, the Prescott Park Arts Festival (PPAF) has grown tremendously. He took the position in 2007, having previously served as president of the Great Waters Music Festival in Wolfeboro. At the time, the PPAF had a budget of $300,000 and was carrying an operating loss with no money in the bank. Today, the budget is up to $1.7 million, with close to $1 million in cash reserves.

Festival events — which include concerts, musicals, movie screenings, and other special events — attract more than 50,000 people to the park annually. The organization employs more than 80 people in the summer. It’s a tremendous boon to the local economy.

“I feel like I’ve put this festival in a really great spot,” Anderson said. “They have a really large cash reserve in the bank for rainy summers. They now have a great reputation with national acts and presentations. The relationship with the city is at an all-time high.”

The festival has faced numerous challenges over the years, from rained-out events to noise complaints from neighbors.

Many of those issues have been resolved. There are plans for a covered stage, and a long-term agreement is in place with the city. But the obstacles have weighed on Anderson.

“I’m definitely tired and worn out,” he said. “It has been a very rewarding but long grind. The challenges with the weather, we’ve had extreme growing pains with the city. … Every one takes its toll.”

Another challenge is that, due to deed restrictions, the festival is not allowed to sell tickets to events held in the park. Admission to all festival events in Prescott Park is by suggested donation. Many guests pay only a fraction of the suggested amount, or nothing at all.

“If we had ticket sales, we’d probably more realistically be a $3 or $4 million operation,” Anderson said.

Asked if he knew why Anderson resigned, Tabor referred to a press release distributed on Oct. 25. The release does not address Anderson’s reasons for resigning, but includes a quote from Tabor thanking Anderson for his “12 years of skillful work building the Prescott Park Arts Festival into one of the great artistic successes of our city.”

Tabor also did not answer when asked if the board had received any complaints about Anderson, but again cited his good work.

Jameson French, another board member and former chair, also is quoted in the press release. “Ben brought the Festival back from virtual bankruptcy to its current success with a combination of his entrepreneurial skills and act booking savvy,” French said.

The search for a new festival director is underway. Board member Michael Harrison is chairing a search committee that will include board members, staff, and community members, Tabor said. He said the search will be national in scope, and candidates may include some of those who have bid to replace Patricia Lynch, executive director of The Music Hall, who has announced she will resign next June.

Tabor said it is unlikely that anyone currently involved with the festival will become the next president.

He said he could not predict whether the festival would undergo any substantial changes under a new president, but he stressed that Anderson’s family-oriented approach has worked well.

Other than finding a new president, Tabor said, the PPAF is not currently facing any major challenges.

“We had a profitable year, we have substantial reserves, we have a great reputation, we have a new covered stage coming in the future, and a very loyal audience,” he said. “I think our challenge is just getting the right leader for that, and I think it’s a great opportunity for somebody.”

As for Anderson, he looks forward to focusing on other pursuits that have been side projects for the last several years. He and Chris Hislop, who is a programming assistant at the PPAF, run the music-booking agency Bright & Lyon. Anderson and his wife, Sarah, also run The Word Barn, a venue for music and literary events located in a barn behind their house in Exeter.

Anderson said he is brainstorming ideas for some new festivals, too.

“The (Prescott Park) festival is in a great spot,” he said. “It was a good time to move on.”