Opinion
Angela Gzowski
Mark Rendell

Surviving the Coming Cultural Dark Age

Corporate support for many local festivals is drying up. Now’s the time to get inventive and be supportive.

We’re still waiting on the prognosis, but it’s starting to look like the cultural canary in the Yellowknife coal mine began to wobble on its perch a few months back, when De Beers pulled funding from the NorthWords Festival. Further evidence of our feathered friend’s worsening state arrived yesterday, when the folks at Long John Jamboree announced De Beers wouldn’t be funding the festival’s marquee ice-sculpting event this year.

It seems like a strange and somewhat graceless PR move for a company that has another mine set to open in the coming years; but then again, that’s the risk of hitching your cultural wagon to corporate sponsors from out of town, tempting as it is and generous as they may be in flush years.

It is, of course, easy to read too much into any bit of bad news. But take a gander around Yellowknife’s festival scene right now; things aren’t looking hot. The Jamboree is scaling back its offerings; Folk on the Rocks has less than no money to play with and is going through a messy and potentially expensive divorce with its former executive director; the Yellowknife Film Festival had to downsize its youth program after losing a chunk of funding from Dominion last summer; the fate of NorthWords, while unclear at this point, has to be touch and go after losing its major sponsor.

Throw in the spectre of shrinking GNWT budgets and gloomy economic prospects in general – could 2016 be the beginning of a cultural dark age in Yellowknife?

Not so fast. To borrow a Samuel Johnson quip: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Despite the spate of bad news, there are plenty of ways to keep Yellowknife’s thriving festival scene afloat through hard times, but it’s going to require both community support and creative thinking. On one level, this means local businesses opening their purses more than they already do; it means different levels of government investing more into the cultural institutions that encourage people (and the per capita federal transfer dollars they bring) to stay in the territory.

It also means Yellowknifers rolling with the punches and getting behind different festivals’ face-saving measures. For example, Folk could make up some of its upfront operating capital by ramping up early ticket sales. If we don’t want the festival to fizzle, we have to be willing to kick our last-minute ticket-buying habits. And if there was ever a year to get involved as a volunteer, this may be it.

Some of our festivals themselves are also going to have to rethink the scale of what’s on offer. This is already happening to some extent. There are tentative plans, according to Jamboree fundraising director Adrian Bell, to replace the ice-carving competition with something like an ice sculpting workshop; instead of flying in a number of teams, bring up a couple of experts to train locals how to sculpt ice.

Folk is planning to run a more “fiscally observant” budget and rethink “strategy to populate the [performer] lineup,” according to board president Ryan Fequet. The latter comment sounds like code for bringing in a smaller number of acts or fewer gilded headliners; but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The festival’s seen a $70,000 hike in performer’s expenses over the past two years while trying to raise its Canada-wide profile. Perhaps it’s time to focus on what the festival actually is: a hell of a good weekend in mid-summer Yellowknife and a great showcase for Northern talent; not something that can or should try to compete with the burgeoning number of high-quality festivals down south for visitors.

Most of the festivals in town started as small, community-led initiatives; they may have to scale back to get across the corporate funding desert we’re likely looking at, but this doesn’t mean they’re going to have change their essence.

There may yet be some good news coming from Ottawa in terms of increased Canada Council for the Arts funding. And who knows, maybe some of the big corporate players will see the value in maintaining cultural sponsorship levels (which in reality make up a tiny percent of their budgets) to stay in Yellowknife’s good graces through the low years until of the next commodities boom.

But ultimately it’s going to take some creative back-to-basics thinking on the part of our cultural movers and shakers, and passionate engagement from Yellowknifers if we’re going to give our cultural canary the CPR that’s needed to get through 2016. Yes, there are more pressing concerns; a lot of people are much more worried about immediately important things like keeping a roof over their head and food on their kids’ plates. But cultural vibrancy is key to the lasting health of any community. And hey, what’s a summer without spending a couple of days trapped in the Folk beer garden, or a March without freezing your butt off looking at giant ice mosquitoes?