One thing is clear. Todd and Ron Wanek, owners of Ashley Furniture Industries, Inc. (Ashley), don’t settle for ordinary. Together they have transformed Ashley from a small company with just 35 employees in 1970 into the world’s largest furniture manufacturer with over 12,000 U.S. employees today.
So, when several community patrons asked the Waneks for their assistance in organizing a “social gathering” in 2009 to help raise awareness for the arts, perhaps they should have expected that the end result would be a little more than they initially bargained for.
“Ashley for the Arts” began in 2009 as a single concert featuring “Monroe Crossing”, a bluegrass band from Minnesota, in Arcadia’s Memorial Park. Attendance for the event was estimated at 300 people. Since then, the event has blossomed into a two-day art and music festival unlike any other in the region, with an estimated 10,000 visitors last year.
The Friday, August 9 and Saturday, August 10 event offers a wide variety of attractions, including performances by regionally and nationally-renowned musicians, fine art exhibits from some of the Midwest’s best artists, a car show, an air park, interactive art activities, a run/walk event, a bike race, a kid’s obstacle course and hot air balloons. Saturday’s schedule includes an unforgettable fireworks show. The price of admission to the two-day event is only five dollars.
Todd and Ron Wanek continue to drive the evolution of Ashley for the Arts as a festival and as a charitable event.
“We wanted to do our part to provide an affordable, enjoyable and educational experience for everyone who attends the event. In the spirit of improving society, we also felt that it was only natural that we help participating schools and charitable organizations raise funds for their causes,” explained Todd Wanek.
A case in point is the American Cancer Society, which decided last year to move its annual run/walk event in Arcadia from June to the first day of Ashley for the Arts (in August). The move proved to be a successful one, as the organization was so overwhelmed by race registrations that they ran out of entry forms. “When they do something, they (Ashley and the Wanek family) do it right and they do it with class,” said Kara Good, Community Relations director of the American Cancer Society in Onalaska. “I think the significance of our cause is ratcheted up when we can get our message out in front of a large audience. It’s emotional, yet rewarding because we know we’re a part of history and we’re making a difference.”
Students of Arcadia, Whitehall and Independence school music departments are also performing in this year’s Ashley for the Arts. For their participation, each school receives a “significant” donation. Louis Ferguson, superintendent of Arcadia’s School District, explained, “We’re extremely fortunate to have Ashley in our backyard. It’s not just the jobs they bring to the area or the taxes that they pay; it’s their willingness to go above and beyond for our schools and our community. They’re a special company and this is a special event.”
The event also helps raise funds for an all-volunteer non-profit organization called, “Ashley’s Angels”, that provides food, clothing, blankets, and special gift requests to children in need at Christmas. Ashley’s Angels benefits from the funds generated from beverage sales at the event. “It’s our biggest fundraiser of the year by far,” said Patrick Myers, president of Ashley’s Angels. “Last year we were able to help 160 children and 60 families in Trempealeau County alone and we expect that number to increase this year.”
In addition to the aforementioned organizations, the event also serves as a fundraising platform for Communities Off n’ Funning, a Trempealeau-based organization that was established to help communities get active. They plan to bring a children’s obstacle course to the event this year.
The Arcadia Lions and Lioness Clubs will also be serving food for fundraising purposes.
Rock-folk singer-songwriter Matt Nathanson and country-folk newcomer THE FARM headline this year’s Ashley for the Arts event. Friday’s headliner, THE FARM, is in many ways a hybrid act. Nick Hoffman, Damien Horne and Krista Marie form a trio deeply rooted in country music, but influenced by a variety of popular-music genres. The end result is a solid, identifiable vocal harmony that has caught the attention of country music fans across the U.S. with hits like “Home Sweet Home” and “Be Grateful”.
Saturday’s main draw is, without question, the charismatic Matt Nathanson. The talented musician has penned and performed notable hits like “Come on Get Higher”, “Car Crash”, “Faster”, “Run” (with Sugarland), and “Falling Apart”. Nathanson’s live shows have achieved ‘legendary’ status among his devoted fans for his uncanny ability to connect with live audiences with down-to-earth and entertaining commentary, and soulful performances. Matt Nathanson’s new album entitled Last of the Great Pretenders will be released on Tuesday, July 16 and will feature his most recent single, “Mission Bells”.
Matt Nathanson and THE FARM are performing in the Millennium Amphitheater, the park’s preeminent stage and fabulous outdoor venue.
Regardless of taste, music lovers should be able to find something that fits their fancy. In addition to Matt Nathanson and THE FARM, music performances will be provided by “The Dweebs”, Tim Sigler Band, Artaria (a popular four-string quartet out of Minneapolis), Hope Country, Russell Lachney Band, The Memories, La Crosse area favorite “String Ties”, Steven Marking, Hallowed Ground, Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Big River Radio Wave” (featuring the “Riverbenders”); and Arcadia, Independence and Whitehall schools.
Although Ashley for the Arts was conceptualized and established by Ashley owners Todd and Ron Wanek, several other companies, including GNP (Gold’n Plump) and Pehler Trucking, were enamored by the initiative and offered to become major sponsors to help pay for the event.
The level of interest in sponsoring and volunteering for the event prompted the Waneks’ decision to convert Ashley for the Arts from an Ashley initiative into an official non-profit organization. The official status change is expected to occur later this year. Even as Ashley for the Arts takes on a life of its own, the Waneks vow to remain generous supporters of the organization and the event that bears their company’s name. Todd Wanek said, “We are humbled by the amount of interest in this initiative and extremely pleased to see that it is being embraced in our region and across the country. I’m confident that it will do a world of good.”
Betty Krause, who volunteers at the event each year, stated, “I don’t know of another event that is quite like this one. And it gets better every year.” Krause is employed by Ashley Furniture and is one of more than 500 volunteers from the area that help run the event.
Among his many philanthropic contributions, Ron Wanek, founder of contemporary Ashley, is the lead benefactor of Memorial Park, which serves as the backdrop for the event. The 54-acre park features Soldier’s Walk, widely recognized as one of the country’s premier war memorials. Two miles of walkways link different areas of the park and all of the event’s attractions, including food and beverage booths. Featured pieces of local art and history decorate the walkways, showcasing some of the region’s most talented and heroic contributors.
For more information on Ashley for the Arts, visit www.ashleyforthearts.com. “Like” Ashley for the Arts on Facebook or follow us on Twitter at #AshleyfortheArts.