Since opening my gallery just over two years ago I have noticed a curious thing. Whenever there is some sort of art event (Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, Riverdale Art Walk, Queen West Art Crawl, Nuit Blanche, Canadian Art Gallery Hop, etc.) happening in Toronto, the gallery is DEAD! This past weekend was no exception.
I remember noticing a similar pattern while I was the Director of the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art / OneWest Art Centre in Colorado. Except there it was not limited to art events, we had similarly dismal attendance when any other public event occurred. I remember thinking, "Why does the Colorado Brewers' Festival, or NewWest Fest pull people away from attending the museum?"
I have had a somewhat awkward and ambivalent relationship with festivals, fairs and large-scale public events. While I would love to think that they have the ability to engage audiences and introduce new audiences to the arts, I often wander if this is actually the case. I remember my first visit to the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in Denver in 1994. This large-scale professionally managed and well-run event takes over the entire Cherry Creek North shopping district for three days over the July 4th long weekend, attracting 350,000 visitors. The festival attracts over 200 exhibiting artists from all over the United States presenting high-quality work in a wide range of both fine art and fine craft media. The streets of Cherry Creek North come alive lined with exhibitor booths, activity areas, performance stages, and food vendors. Visitors stroll, mingle, visit, chat, watch, participate and engage with the artists and activities around them. It is fun. What hit me on that first Saturday morning visit to the festival is that the shops, boutiques, restaurants, and coffee shops that were typically bustling with shoppers were quiet. Even the art galleries, that were located steps behind the crisp white artists tents were quiet.
I first started to seriously think about the impact of festivals after we moved to Toronto. Toronto summers consist of one festival after another. There is always something to do, somewhere to go, something to see - making it almost impossible to take in even a small percentage of what the city and the cultural scene has to offer. Living in Leslieville, we are within easy walking distance of the Beaches International Jazz Festival. As I watch the crowds of people streaming past our house on the way to the festival and then loudly staggering home at the end of the night, I have often wandered what is the role of art festivals? Who attends these events? Why do they attend?
Are the thousands of individuals attending an event like the Beaches International Jazz Festival doing so because they are interested in, or love jazz? Do they even care that it is jazz? Or are they going because it is an event, something fun and different to do, a great place to people watch, or to simply meet up with friends. Or has attending festivals just become part of our summer culture?
When I started my PhD last fall, I decided that I was going to look at festivals, particularly visual art festivals, and more specifically contemporary art festivals such as biennials. I am interested in how festivals animate public spaces and engage the public. However, I am also interested in how festivals impact and engage their audiences, if they create new audiences for the arts and how these events function within the context of the existing arts infrastructure of a city.
I want to believe that art festivals are about the art, are about dialogue, engagement, and communication. However, I also know that festivals are big business. They bring in sponsorship dollars, encourage tourism, promote civic branding and are touted as having myriad economic spin offs. I think the secret is in the balance.