Kate Lesta considers herself more like a parent than a boss.
A fusion of the cultural non-profit, underground art and commercial entertainment worlds, Communikey hosts a large festival of electronic music and art in Boulder every April along with a number of other events and projects. The five day festival brings in artists from around the world, presenting such displays as a robotic Balinese gamelan orchestra.
“We’re 100 percent volunteer run,” explains Kate, cofounder and creative director of the organization. Though a member of a core team known as “The Brain,” she emphasizes that Communikey is, at its core, an egalitarian enterprise. “Everyone’s on the same level,” says Kate. “We’re not a commercial organization.” Communikey is comprised of 40 permanent staff and an additional 40 volunteers recruited for the festival.
Communikey’s organizational model, inspired by such theorists as Peter Senge, Buckminster Fuller and Hakim Bey, emphasizes consensus, autonomy and social responsibility. “We really try to foster self-motivation and a lot of self-management in an environment that’s really mutually supportive,” Kate says.
If the core team is the brain, the other organs of Communikey are its committees. Charged with tasks ranging from feeding guest artists to providing them with transportation, the volunteers forming these committees make their own decisions through consensus or voting with a minimum of oversight.
Communikey sticks by its ethos of social, cultural and ecological progress but is keen to operate within its financial constraints. “It always comes down to a budget, no matter how communal an organization might be,” says Kate.
Ticket prices are kept to a minimum: “we really want all of our events to be very accessible and affordable,” she explains. Other sources of income include grants and partnerships with companies that share the ethos of the organization. Communikey is currently running a kickstarter project to fund the 2012 festival.
“We operate in a lot of alternative currency systems,” describes Kate. One of these is labor trading. For instance, Communikey volunteers repair damaged bicycles impounded on the University of Colorado campus and lend them to artists visiting for the festival. The bicycles are then returned to the University, which sells them for a profit. In the case of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Communikey provides programming and much-needed youth traffic in exchange for venue space.
Working with creative types can be challenging at times, according to Kate. “Artists are classically disorganized,” she observes. Communikey manages artists by not managing them: the group sees itself as devoted to collectively materializing individual visions. “What was once an individual vision becomes a collective vision,” according to Kate. “We really try to help the individuals find what they’re truly inspired to do in the group.”
Communikey’s staff are constantly digging for talent at local concerts, with small record labels and in the independent music community. “We don’t listen to Pandora,” explains Kate. “There needs to be an experience, and it needs to be innovative.” A live experience is essential. “There’s only so much entertainment that can come from staring at a digital laptop.”
While Communikey’s staff may not be paid in dollar bills, they are compensated more than adequately by the joy they bring to festival goers. Kate recalls an exhilarating moment at a party toward the end of the first festival, looking out across the crowd of dancers and seeing that her community’s vision had been realized.
“We want Boulder to have an experience,” she says. “We’re all friends.”
Greg Eckard is an editorial intern at elephant journal. He studied History at Occidental College and enjoys music, card games, and aquarium keeping. A Colorado native, he has lived in Boulder for three years.