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I Am Skooter
So here's us, on the raggedy edge.
And did you get my message / On the People's Radio? I wrote it in Alberta /Across the prairie spine.
— Rheostatics, Northern Wish
December 31, 2010
Does Vancouver Need Its Own Nuit Blanche?

I’ve never been fortunate enough to be in Toronto when Nuit Blanche was happening. For the last few years I’ve jealously followed along as sites like BlogTO and Torontoist have covered Toronto’s annual twenty-four hour festival of arts and culture.

According to the Globe and Mail a group in Vancouver has formed hoping to bring the all night festival to Vancouver. I’m happy about this—I’ve repeatedly said that I wanted a Vancouver edition of the festival—but I also can’t help but wonder if the focus on creating a new festival is the best strategy. Vancouver has a thriving arts community with a number of outdoor festivals already. Cuts to arts and culture funding have been hard on these festivals in recent years and it’s possible that adding a new festival to the mix has the potential to do as much harm as good.

The Public Dreams Society is probably the best known of the groups that produces free outdoor events in Vancouver. The society’s annual Illuminares lantern festival and now seemingly semi-annual Parade of Lost Souls are amongst the most notable public festivals in North America, but both were reduced in size substantially this year. Illuminares has moved from its gorgeous outdoor location to a smaller indoor venue on the downtown eastside, while the Parade of Lost Souls no longer occupies the entirety of Commercial Drive that it used too.

The hard times that both of these festivals have hit were caused by sudden cuts to government funding and a lack of corporate sponsorship. It’s notable that Toronto’s Nuit Blanche festival is, in fact, the Scotiabank Nuit Blanche. The marriage between arts and commerce has always been a bit tense, but the London Drugs Parade of Lost Souls just doesn’t quite have the same ring of magic it. Despite this, I know that a Nuit Blanche style festival in Vancouver won’t happen without sponsorship and I hope it doesn’t happen without the Public Dreams Society.

Even events with corporate sponsorship have suffered in Vancouver. The most notable example is the annual Celebration of Lights Festival. Fireworks festivals across the country hit hard times a few years ago with only Vancouver’s surviving thanks to title sponsorship from HSBC but the hard times hit again this year and the festival was officially canceled before being rescued at the last minute. The addition of a concert series to the four nights of fireworks expanded by the scope of the festival, but the Celebration of Light lacks the dynamic and mixed media nature that Nuit Blanche has. People tend to get to the beach early and park themselves on a blanket and relax in the (hopefully) sunny weather rather than moving around between venues.

The Eastside Culture Crawl is one of the Vancouver arts communities great success stories, and may serve as a good example for Nuit Blanches. This weekend long celebration of East Vancouver’s visual and textile arts is more of a collective of artists selling their work than a produced festival, and hasn’t seemed to have suffered from a lack of funding. The three day celebration runs on Friday night and through the day on Saturday and Sunday and sees thousands of people touring multiple venues throughout the city. The Crawl gets bigger every year, as anybody who’s visited the warmth of Joe Blow Glassworks on those chilly November evenings can attest. It seems like it would be easy to expand the Crawl, but the November weekend isn’t ideal.

The Vancouver International Fringe Festival is an excellent example as well. When the Fringe takes over its Granville Island location the sedate public market transforms into something completely different with buskers, musicians and performers of all kinds taking over the space under the bridge and slightly beyond. The Fringe is at heart a theatre festival, but it plays a bigger role than that in the Vancouver arts community and serves as an end of summer treat for fans of arts and culture.

With no lack of family friendly public events already, what’s the point of proposing a Nuit Blanche for Vancouver? The Toronto festival is something of a combination of all of the examples above: it celebrates visual and media arts with a dash of music thrown in as well. It focuses on outdoor performances and venues, but indoor galleries participate as well.

The twenty-four hour nature of Nuit Blanche is its most unique element, and one that Vancouver could benefit from. This is a sleepy town that goes to bed early. Keeping Vancouver up late is hard, though the success of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Fuse events is a testament to the fact that it can happen outside of the Olympics. An all night event such as this will draw press coverage and an audience that all artists benefit from, not just the ones who already have substantial public profiles. The mixed media nature of it will help families expose their kids to art forms they may not have experienced before.

In order to succeed a new all-night festival needs to work with prominent local musicians, performance groups and visual artists. The festival needs to extend beyond the city’s sterile downtown core to embrace East Vancouver and the Waterfront, hopefully including North Vancouver. Translink could help by keeping the Seabus and Skytrain systems running all night, allowing people to easily move between geographically dispersed venues. Vancouver’s unique geography offers opportunities for equally unique events: the Stanley Park Seawall could be an integral part of the celebrations if city hall decides to allow it—technically the park is closed after 11:00 p.m.

That’s a lot of cooperation, in a city where arts groups and politicians don’t always seem to cooperate well.

Whatever happens, I’m hopeful that a new event creates a lasting legacy and becomes a core pillar of Vancouver’s arts community. The traditional mid-summer Illuminares festival offers a good starting point for growth. Typically good weather and the legacy of an annual outdoor event that could be incorporated into something new and perhaps bigger may offer an easier path to success than starting from scratch. By integrating with other arts and culture groups Nuit Blanche’s legacy can be one of helping to build the existing community—one that’s suffered greatly in recent years—rather than competing with it.

Perhaps the Nuit Blanche name will offer a fresh start in the public’s eyes, and some familiarity based on its Hogtown history. Perhaps it can become one of the focal points for Vancouver’s arts community. Either way, on the eve of 2011 it’s nice to think that we have something new to look forward to in 2012.

Posted by skooter at 6:05 AM This entry is filed under Music, Vancouver.
This entry is tagged: Celebration of Lights, Festivals, Illuminares, Nuit Blanche, Parade of Lost Souls, Public Art, Public Dreams Society, Sea Vancouver Festival, Shorefest

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