Festival City

If you flipped through the average Ottawa tourism brochure, you would be hard-pressed to find anything mentioning the burlesque performances and poetry slams that regularly sell-out in the city. You might learn, however, that in 2010 Ottawa was named the IFEA World Festival & Event City. Ottawa takes pride in its year-round festivals. Approximately 50 exist to-date, with new ones springing up every few years.

Why so many? According to Barbara Stacey, Executive Director at Ottawa Festivals, it’s because Ottawa’s unique environment – its diverse culture, its many partners (federal/provincial/municipal, NGOs, corporate, etc.) – simply opens up the opportunity. Loretto Beninger, an Ottawa researcher and academic who has extensively studied the city’s arts policy, offers an alternative perspective. She says the city uses an antiquated 1950s model to support local arts, narrowly defining what “culture” means: it’s either “people pirouetting in tutus or people throwing paint on a canvas.” Under this model, festivals are prized because “[they’re] temporary, [they’re] intense and [they’re] for a limited time period…a bit like the circus.”

In fact, back in the 1950s Ottawa was a leader in its time, as one of the first cities in North America to introduce festivals (the first one was held here in 1903). A lot has changed since then. Ottawa is now reportedly one of the stingiest cities in Canada when it comes to arts funding. Clive Doucet’s words back in 1986 still hold true today: “Ottawans…get culture but it is not theirs. It is doled out from the federal ladle and it is national and international in character.” After all, why bother broadly investing in the local arts when the feds already do it inexpensively for us, in our own backyards?

This is not to say municipal staff hasn’t tried – the Arts 20/20 Plan, for example, is an excellent vision for the city and sound in its consultation with local community arts groups. But it’s not enough. Ottawa needs more mayors and politicians who support the arts. The last time any real headway was made for the local community was when the late Marion Dewar was at the helm in the 1980s. Under Dewar’s leadership, Arts Court became Ottawa’s first municipal arts centre, giving a home to the professional arts community. Since then, the only other municipal cultural facility to emerge since then has been the Shenkman Arts Centre, which opened its doors in June 2009.

In the mean time, festivals remain an effective way of building local audiences. That’s what inspired musician Bruce Libbos to launch Ottawa’s newest indie music platform, Feverfest. Libbos says he always wanted to give Ottawa bands a chance to properly showcase themselves and their work. Ottawa’s audiences are notoriously difficult – even bands outside of Ottawa find it’s a tricky city to crack, where it’s “unusual to go to a show on a Wednesday night.” He began planning in May for the festival’s June launch, soliciting bars and restaurants in old Ottawa South for their parking spaces and reeling in the talent of his friends and family to work behind the scenes. Libbos remarks, “in Toronto, I couldn’t just start up my own festival…in Ottawa, there is a lot of opportunity.”