The Festival Effect

The 2nd annual WayHome festival took place just north of Toronto this past month, an event that has taken advantage of the “accessible entertainment movement” growing in popularity with a younger generation looking to experience the arts in a new way.  But public gatherings have not always been as immersive an experience as they are right now.

The contemporary music festival as it appears today is a far cry from festivals from generations past.  The classic template was designed for the viewer to arrive and park themselves in front of a stage, staring at nothing but the main act for hours on end.  This in effect can form an “us vs. them” dynamic between artists and fans.  Today’s festival is much more interactive of an experience for the viewer; for festivals like Burning man, Coachella, and Osheaga, grounds are transformed into themed dream worlds, with multiple stages, displaying mind-bending installations and interactive spaces that are designed to make festival-goers feel more like they are a part of the action.

In Toronto, festivals have had a profound impact on our city, engaging Torontonians with a world of culture that otherwise would be inaccessible to them.  With an abundance of annual festivals to choose from, including NXNE, Canadian Music Week and TURF, to name only a few, Toronto has become a destination for exposure to popular music and art.  Festivals and performances are transforming spaces like City Hall, Harbourfront, Yonge & Dundas Square and parks like Trinity Bellwoods, where pop-up concerts in grassy amphitheatres bring music closer to people than ever before.  The bottom line is this generation wants to be amongst themselves and part of the action as much as possible.

Music festivals as cultural stalwarts have overtaken the more conventional institutions that are historically most recognized as places to experience art.  Museums, galleries and the opera have recently taken a back-seat to this more accessible form of entertainment.

Nuit Blanche – an event that came to Toronto in 2006, backed by rave reviews from other worldly cities having hosted the event – had a main pitch of bringing contemporary art to the public in a more accessible way than ever before.  Since its inauguration, the annual event has grown in size and scope with an attendance in 2015 surpassing 1 million in its 10th year.  The event has generated millions into the local economy and advanced the local dialogue around contemporary art.  Effectively, Nuit Blanche has survived on its pitch to Torontonians in being an event for experiencing art alongside one another.  In an interview with Julian Sleath, ex-Program Manager for special events at the City of Toronto, he claims, “Nuit Blanche itself is completely centred around and utterly dependent on that visitor participation and that sort of direct engagement […] and most of our projects—which is possibly unusual for many contemporary art events—are dependent on that mass shared experience.”

Other institutions have taken advantage of the concept of the “mass shared experience.”  The Toronto Design Offsite festival, or TO DO, features interactive exhibitions, talks, tours and installations across the city, bringing the art to the consumer, and contemporary galleries like the Power Plant, offer an authentic environment where audience members can meander through ware-house like spaces absorbing the art at their own pace.

The colossal success and relevance that this new style of experience has provided for the artistic community has encouraged the perennial big ticket institutions to follow-suit.  The ROM began extending its hours of operation.  Branded as “Friday Night Live”, it has opened up exhibits and offered up food, drink, music and a fiesta-like vibe for crowds to enjoy.  The AGO has followed suit with “First Thursday’s” which uses much the same model.

The arts have an invaluable role in shaping the city’s culture and livability.  Investing more in these types of festivals that allow locals to not only take part in but also experience art for the first-time inevitably pays dividends for the city at large – economically, culturally and otherwise.  So while the appropriation of this “Music Festival Model” has been a big winner for galleries and larger sponsors, the real winners are the local artists, businesses, and individuals reaping an immeasurable benefit from their creative awakening.  In this sense, if recent trends are any indications, our city may be entering into a more enlightened and fruitful era.