Canadian Art

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Nuit Blanche: Alight, but for how Long?

Various locations, Toronto Oct 1 2011
Two revellers enjoy Nuit Blanche in front of Toronto City Hall in 2009  / photo City of Toronto Two revellers enjoy Nuit Blanche in front of Toronto City Hall in 2009 / photo City of Toronto

Two revellers enjoy Nuit Blanche in front of Toronto City Hall in 2009 / photo City of Toronto

Though Toronto’s Nuit Blanche often has an air of jubilant celebration—a mood built, in no small part, by the 1 million people who’ve consistently turned up for this all-night art exhibition—this year’s event is shadowed for many arts lovers by the imminent threat of municipal culture funding cuts.

As councillors gathered for a special budget meeting at City Hall on Monday, Julian Sleath, programming manager of special events at the City, spoke on the phone with Leah Sandals (who's also, full disclosure, participating in a Nuit Blanche independent project) about this Saturday’s big event—and its current context.

Leah Sandals: Given the $500 million-plus that the City of Toronto is looking to trim from its budget this year, the 10% reduction in spending demanded of all city departments, and the many recent recommendations to cut funds for city-owned museums and other municipal cultural programs, it’s a tense time for many in Toronto’s arts community. What are the challenges of mounting Nuit Blanche in this type of fiscal and political environment?

Julian Sleath: Challenges? We probably don’t really know, because we’re not party to those discussions so far. We as a team have, increasingly, a 24-month planning cycle. So we’ve hired next year’s curators already. We’ve had the commitment of a title sponsor from Scotiabank till 2014. And the Special Events team are working on that basis, that we’re here to stay. At this point, I’m actually seeking proposals for 2013.

LS: Yet because you work so far ahead, you and your team must have projected the possible impacts of our city’s deficit, and efforts to eliminate it. How have you dealt with that long-term factor?

JS: Well, in our department as a whole, we’re subject to the standard and ongoing operating efficiencies. Aside from the Core Service Review, every department of the City of Toronto is under an annual challenge to decrease its expenditure by an amount set each year by the city manager. And we continue to do that, in no small part due to those commercial and branding sponsorships that we obtain. We’re extremely fortunate that we have a number of partnerships in the form of commercial sponsorship that help us sustain the program and help us look forward to a long-term future.

Sponsorship and other outside funds are providing us with 73 percent of our funding this year. This includes Scotiabank, GMC Chevy and Timothy’s Coffee, as well as the various tourism-related grants we get through the Ministry of Ontario’s Celebrate Ontario program. In alternate years, we usually get money from the Ontario Cultural Attractions Fund. We also get a significant grant from Tourism Toronto each year.

LS: Nonetheless, some of my colleagues feel that Nuit Blanche has been very quietly touted this year. Is there a desire to keep a little more on the down-low in the current environment?

JS: Not particularly. I think our efforts in marketing or PR are less aimed, to be frank, at great magazines like Canadian Art. As much as we love it or love reading it here in the office, it doesn’t really have the coverage in the popular market that lots of our attention is focused on these days.

LS: I’m glad you mentioned that, because I wanted to ask you about that distance between Nuit Blanche and the more specialized art readership or art realm. Many art professionals have criticized Nuit Blanche for its emphasis on “the populist” or “the spectacular” or whatever other term they’d like to use to decry a perceived lack of rigour. How do you respond to such criticisms?

JS: Art events as a whole were the focus of a not inconsiderable discussion at the recent Visual Arts Colloquium in Kingston. I think everyone admits that we all have the same interest in getting the general public their first exposure to contemporary visual art. But it’s the same problem that the opera community, the theatre community and the classical music community have—the same problem that we all have in the arts is getting people to have their first experience. And sometimes you have to take that first experience to them.

Nuit Blanche itself is completely centred around and utterly dependent on that visitor participation and that sort of direct engagement, either as a voyeur or a viewer, or as an actual participant. And most of our projects—which is possibly unusual for many contemporary art events—are dependent on that mass shared experience. Almost all the institutional galleries who open during Nuit Blanche see a very significant rise in their audience attendance. Our job in the future by working together is to make sure people come back on a second, and third, and fourth, occasion.

LS: So what do you think institutional galleries and other more permanent art facilities, like artist-run centres, could learn from Nuit Blanche in terms of popular outreach?

JS: Well, it’s that process of engagement—creating an environment in which people feel relatively open. One of the big conversations that came out of Visual Arts Colloquium was that at most museums, the first person you see when you walk into the gallery is some form of security guard or custodian, someone who’s there to protect the art rather than welcome you to the art. And in some of those institutions, even when you’ve managed to pluck up the courage to cross through the doorway, there are challenges. I counted in one gallery recently that it was 138 steps past the doorway before I got near a piece of art—which is quite a long walk and, for many people, quite challenging.

I think our job at Nuit Blanche is to, in effect, make it a very short walk to the initial introduction to a piece of art. Our job in working together then is, as I said before, to work with the institutions and artist-run centres to create some program that makes sure those people feel welcome to return at a later date. This could mean doing artist talks or debates, or it could mean some of those art installations on Nuit Blanche having a second or third life in a different location, even in a gallery location. It was really terrific last year that Philip Beesley’s sculpture, which was in the Royal Conservatory of Music for Nuit Blanche and was jammed with visitors, got a second and longer installation during Luminato, in part as a result of having participated in Nuit Blanche.

LS: What are you most looking forward to at Nuit Blanche this year? You know every little thing that’s going on.

JS: I like the whole of it. That’s a very trite way of saying it! But the really fantastic thing is the sheer number of people that enjoy being out in the city, celebrating what is great about Toronto. We have to use a vehicle of contemporary visual art in this particular instance. But it’s that sense of the public just enjoying the city for what it has to offer. We get a similar reaction—albeit with a completely different feel—with people going to the Doors Open program and seeing interiors of buildings that they are not normally otherwise allowed into. This is a sort of event that allows people to have a set of experiences they wouldn’t normally have.

LS: So there’s nothing in particular you can suggest people “not miss” this year?

JS: Well, it’s a bit unfair of me to highlight any one particular artist or group of artists to see at Nuit Blanche! All of them are really terrific.

I suppose I particularly enjoy some of the ones where there is a greater level of audience participation—where, in effect, the artist is almost using people as part of the raw material to create their work. Ken Rinaldo’s Face Music and Paparazzi Bots are like that, and Luc Courchesne’s McLuhan’s Massage Parlour. Also Christine Irving’s The Heart Machine, where four or five people have to collaborate at the same time to get the maximum effect of a fire sculpture—I like pieces where an individual’s participation is somewhat dependent on collaboration, where four or five or more people have to be working together and experiencing it together.

This article was first published online on September 29, 2011.

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