Richard Herskowitz has had a busy year as director of the Ashland International Film Festival. Herskowtiz's long history with arts organizations (among them, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum at University of Oregon and the artistic directorship at Houston's Cinema Arts Festival) have stood him in good stead in his current role. I caught up with him to discuss his relationship with AIFF, the future of the festival, and the highlights of 2017.

JG: What factors led you into your position at AIFF?

RH: I moved to Eugene in 2008, after 15 years running the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville. I had been hired as the part-time Artistic Director of the new Houston Cinema Arts Festival, which I could manage from a distance. The University of Oregon asked me to launch a “teaching” festival in Eugene that would train and employ arts administration students, and so I created Cinema Pacific, a festival of cinematic art from the Pacific Rim, and ran it for six years. I had a lot of wonderful experiences, but it was a struggle attracting large and enthusiastic audiences.

So when Anne Ashbey invited me down from Eugene to experience AIFF in 2014, the large and enthusiastic audiences and grateful filmmakers I encountered here left me feeling, frankly, jealous. A year or so later, Joanne Feinberg, whose programming talents had taken this festival so far, decided to leave the job and focus more on film production. I applied for the Director of Programming position, and landed it.

In the past few months, because of my background as both executive and artistic director of the Virginia Film Festival and Cinema Pacific, the board asked if I would step up into the Interim Executive Director role and help build a sturdier festival organization that might take AIFF to the next level. Now that the festival is over and was received so well, I’m turning my full attention to organizational improvements and fundraising.

JG: What were the particular highlights of 2017 for you?

RH: There were many. On the very first night, watching the legendary activist Dolores Huerta take the stage after "Dolores," to the surprise of a packed house that had no idea she was in the room, was amazing. The next day, we took her to visit Fry’s Farm and its staff, and Betty LaDuke at her artist studio, and to a screening of "Granito: How to Nail a Dictator," and to be interviewed by Latino students from Medford, who were part of our special “Teen Press” program. I could tell that she was as inspired as much by her experiences in Ashland as Ashland audiences were inspired by her.

The TalkBacks this year were phenomenal. The panel on “Filming Activists” was nearly cancelled since the moderator and one of the scheduled participants didn’t make it here, due to flight cancellations. Sonya Childress ended up moderating that panel via Skype, and it felt like she was in the room. The person who made the greatest impression, I thought, was Andrea Ixchiu, the eloquent Mayan activist we flew here from Guatemala to accompany "500 Years." It adds so much to the festival to have the subjects of documentary films present!

For many people, the Sunday panel on “Cinematic Literature” moderated by Bill Rauch, featuring two great Shakespeare-to-film adaptors, James Ivory and Matias Pineiro, was a peak event. Pineiro offered one dazzling insight after another. Having two directors who so admired each other’s work, one emerging on the world stage and the other an esteemed veteran, participating on the same panel, was just perfect.

JG: Where do you see the festival going over the next few years?

RH: I think we’ll keep growing the “expanded cinema” section of our festival — live and interactive experiences of cinema that go beyond the movie theater. The media installation show I co-curated with Scott Malbaurn at the Schneider Museum of Art, called “Convergence,” is still on view through May 27, and people should check out this stimulating and entertaining collection of interactive media sculptures. The book piece by Peter Sarkisian is blowing many people’s minds, and there are knockout works by Vanessa Renwick, Ken Matsubara, Julia Oldham, Nina Katchadourian and more.

In future years, the visual artists who have installation shows at the Schneider Museum during the festival may also design our festival poster. People loved the organic reel mandala drawing by Claire Burbridge we used this year on our poster and other materials, and I want to maintain that level of artistic quality.

JG: What sort of engagement would you like to see from the public that you're not seeing now?

RH: We are maxing out our venues downtown, and need to stretch out more. In addition to the Schneider Museum, we may add screens at Ashland Street to meet the demand. We had over a hundred sell-outs this year! So we’re going to ask our audience to stretch their wings more.

In spite of the fact that we earn impressive revenues from ticket sales and memberships (more, frankly, than any festival I’ve ever worked with), plus substantial in-kind support from hotels, B&B’s, restaurants, and other businesses, we need more philanthropic support. The threatened cuts in arts funding are ominous. AIFF supports non-commercial independent film and media art, and so, like other nonprofit arts organizations, it needs donor and foundation support to supplement our earned income. The Donation Day we held on Saturday of the festival brought us new donors and met our initial goals, and I have faith that more new contributors are going to emerge to help us keep one of the “25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World” thriving in Ashland.

— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.