Skip to content

May we suggest

Features / September 25, 2014

10 Thoughts on Why Nuit Blanche Has Triumphed—and Tanked—Across Canada

Over the past decade, Nuit Blanche-style events have spread from BC to Nova Scotia—what are the pros and cons of this?
Nuit Blanche Montreal, 2014. Photo: Matias Garabedian. Nuit Blanche Montreal, 2014. Photo: Matias Garabedian.

In 2004, Montreal launched Canada’s first Nuit Blanche. Since then, the late-night public art party has inspired similar events in Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary, Ottawa, Halifax, and Charlottetown, as well as centres like Antigonish, Sydney and (just this year) Saskatoon and Kamloops. But artists and curators have also voiced concerns about the Nuit Blanche model, and Vancouver—arguably Canada’s best-known art city internationally—has so far forgone the fest. On October 1, Canadian Art’s panel “Bread & Circuses: The Costs & Benefits of Art Festivals,” featuring artist Gwen MacGregor, curator Janine Marchessault and critic Murray Whyte, will engage in spirited discussion on these issues as part of Toronto Nuit Blanche’s talks series at OCADU. Here, voices from BC to Nova Scotia offer their views on why the Nuit Blanche concept has succeeded in some instances—and fallen short in others.

1. One reason the Nuit Blanche model appeals to art institutions (and to some artists) is they want to reach new audiences.

This Hallowe’en, Kamloops Art Gallery curator Charo Neville will be launching Luminocity, the BC city’s first Nuit Blanche–inspired event. “Seeing the potential for us to reach audiences outside of the gallery is part of the push for me,” Neville says. “I think we have a really dedicated audience and our attendance is on the rise … but I also know we’re not reaching a general population. So this is a way of introducing contemporary art forms and contemporary artists into a greater mix.” Sculptor Fenn Martin, artistic director for Antigonish’s Antigonight, agrees. “The biggest, most exciting thing about the arts festival format is that it is super-accessible to non-traditional gallery-going audiences, to the regular gallery-going audiences, across all classes,” Martin says. Especially in rural areas where there are few art institutions, he notes, such a festival may offer “the first time you’ve seen a work of art in your life.”

2. But when a Nuit Blanche–type festival becomes too popular, it can become a victim of its own success—especially in terms of its reputation among artists and curators.

Toronto Star critic Murray Whyte expresses ambivalence about the popularity of his city’s Scotiabank Nuit Blanche: “My feeling on these things is split right down the middle, in that there’s something obvious and good about something labelled as an ‘art event’ that can draw a million people and nominally shatters the notion of art being a rarefied pursuit; but at the same time, an event that prioritizes splash and spectacle and ephemerality at that scale seems like a tremendous waste of resources that could be funnelled into a broader, sustainable strategy to install an awareness of contemporary art in the more general cultural landscape long-term.” Toronto artist Gwen MacGregor has participated multiple times the event, and for her recent master’s degree research, she interviewed dozens of people involved in the festival. She writes in a recent research paper, “as the festival becomes more popular and the city adjusts the programming to accommodate the large numbers of people without equal attention to increasing its ‘cultural capital,’ the festival is losing credibility within the cultural field and is hitting the ‘tipping point.’” In response, City of Toronto cultural events manager Julian Sleath says that his programmers “work terrifically hard with those curators and artists to try and insulate them as much as possible from the inevitable bureaucracy of producing something in a risk-averse municipal environment.” At the same time, Sleath says, “large-scale festival issues have to be dealt with” and “it’s completely appropriate for artists to make their own decisions” about whether a given festival is right for them. Sleath also notes that some artists do continue to return to the festival despite the challenges it faces.

3. Nuit Blanche festivals can be attractive to artists as an opportunity to exhibit when few other such opportunities may exist—and also to exhibit in unusual spaces.

Ottawa’s first Nuit Blanche in 2010 was jumpstarted by BRAVO, an association of Francophone artists in Ontario. “I think one of the pros for myself, speaking in terms of the artist, is that it gives you an opportunity to test things out, to try new ideas,” says Lainie Towell, a dance artist who co-curated that first Ottawa event. “To be able to take city spaces and transform them and get people to think about our city and our space differently is really exciting.” Antigonight, too, was originally initiated because “the feeling at the time was, as rural artists, we wanted to create events for people to exhibit at,” Fenn Martin says.

4. However, when artists are not adequately paid for their work in such festivals, they can become fatigued and cynical.

While Lainie Towell is no longer involved with organizing Ottawa’s Nuit Blanche, she still wants it to succeed—and she is concerned it doesn’t have enough financial support to do so. “If the independent artists are doing it year after year, I think [they] get tired,” Towell says—particularly if they are unpaid, or paid very little. “I firmly believe Nuit Blanche is not dead in this city, but I think we need to rethink the model and explore new ways to fund the event.” (Interestingly, the artist-run Antigonight festival made it a point “to create an event that would pay artists to do what we do,” Martin says. Thanks to an annual federal grant of $20,000, and this focus, Martin says, Antigonight pays recommended CARFAC fees or higher.)

5. Nuit Blanche–style festivals are attractive to the city governments that have taken up Richard Florida’s ideas of culture-as-economic-driver.

Toronto’s Nuit Blanche is organized by the City’s Special Events Office, a full-service unit of its Economic Development & Culture Division aimed a not only enhancing quality of life for residents but also “attracting world-wide tourist audiences.” According to Gwen MacGregor’s research, the creation of Toronto’s Nuit Blanche came out of an economic plan that argued, à la Florida, that contemporary art needn’t be a drain on the city’s budget, but an economic driver. Mike Williams, general manager of economic development and culture, touted this in a recent Nuit Blanche press release, noting “This overnight festival also generates significant economic impact, totalling more than $177 million since 2006.” Tourism departments, hotel associations and BIAs are also key contributors to other Nuit Blanche–style festivals, including ones in Saskatoon, Calgary and Halifax.

6. Yet many city governments, even if they agree with Florida’s ideas, are cash-strapped and either cannot support such a festival—or they require levels of corporate sponsorship integration unacceptable to artists.

In 2010, it looked as though Vancouver might be getting a Nuit Blanche, as a local group approached the city to see if such an event might be possible. Vancouverite Kate Armstrong, one of the artists and curators involved in the proposal, said part of the reason it never came to fruition is the city is underfunded. “There are more city staff completely devoted to Nuit Blanche in Toronto than we have in Cultural Services in total here,” Armstrong explains. (Sara Couper, a spokesperson for the City of Vancouver, confirms that the city doesn’t produce events.) But even in Toronto, more than 70 per cent of funding for Nuit Blanche comes from corporate sponsorship, which has produced a proximity between art and advertising that is unacceptable to some. As critic Murray Whyte feels, “the priority on tourism and advertising is kind of galling—we all know culture is an economic driver, but do we have to treat our premiere art event, commercially, as the equivalent of a monster-truck pull?” In response, Julian Sleath, programming manager of cultural events at the City of Toronto, notes that “the reality of the arts across Canada and North America is the need for fairly substantial investment by commercial partners and other funding sources,” although he also emphasizes sponsors receive no input or veto on Nuit Blanche Toronto’s commissioned artworks.

7. Nuit Blanche provides a populist collary to internal art-world trends towards biennales, interactive installations and exhibitions sited beyond the white cube.

It’s worth noting that inside the art world, there’s a trend towards site-specific practice and event-based experiences which is manifested in the worldwide growth of biennale. And it’s possible that the Nuit Blanche model has caught on, in part, because it takes that impulse and spins it towards a larger public. “Nuit Blanche provides us with a situationist and experimental platform equivalent to a biennale which we should have in Toronto,” states Toronto curator Janine Marchessault, who has organized projects for past Nuits and other large-scale outdoor art exhibitions. Kate Armstrong of Vancouver also argues that the tradition of media arts in general includes “performance and electronic music and any kind of interactive installation that involves public space… often unused spaces.” Charo Neville in Kamloops says “maybe we’re exhausting the white cube, too, on some levels” for both internal and external art-world audiences.

8. Still, if other models exist that are more acceptable to artists and art-world professionals, some question the need to take up the Nuit Blanche “brand.”

While Vancouver’s Kate Armstrong admits that she was disappointed her proposal for a Nuit Blanche didn’t come through, she has since become more interested in events more authentic to the local arts community. “We have a very vibrant culture around the artist-run centres here,” she says. “I think the feeling in the community is it makes more sense to be building from that platform and that activity than be bringing in another mega-event.” For instance, the artist-run centres coordinate an event called SWARM every fall—“a simultaneous opening that’s very Nuit Blanchesque in a way, but it comes from here.” The big difference, Armstrong argues, is that grassroots events like SWARM “are displaying this solid, slow growth and energy” that “doesn’t involve corporate support.” Soon to curate projects for Vancouver’s hosting of the International Symposium on Electronic Art next summer, Armstrong concludes, “the Nuit Blanche format does start to function as this kind of network and kind of brand; the network thing might be good, but the brand might not be.”

9. The Nuit Blanche model is flexible; organizers can tweak it to suit local circumstances, priorities and needs.

Wary of some of the difficulties encountered by big-city Nuit Blanche events, Kamloops curator Charo Neville says she has been careful to organize the municipality’s first Luminocity event to “roll it out in a way that people can really experience it instead of it being missed.” So instead of a 24-hour extravaganza that requires intense caffeination and is impossible to experience in full, she is planning a slower-paced week of events, including a parade on Hallowe’en, concerts programmed by Instant Coffee in a local bandshell, and screenings in a park, as well as installations like Dana Claxton’s Video Tipi in public space. Even Toronto’s own much-debated Nuit Blanche is taking a different tack of late, Julian Sleath notes; it is extending the run of 10 installations over the course of a week, and it is also shifting its zones out of the financial district—which some critiqued as being a poor venue for site-specific work—westward towards historic, more human-scaled areas like Spadina Avenue and Fort York.

10. But because of this, the success and failure of Nuit Blanche–style events hinges very much on local context and decision-making.

Now that Nuit Blanche is a presence in communities that range from 5,000 to 2.5 million residents in size, differences in context are becoming ever clearer. For his part, Fenn Martin of Antigonight believes that smaller festivals in rural areas “tend to be a little more participatory, which I think is interesting.” In his own festival, for instance, visitors have worked on participatory clay sculptures, and group drawings. Meanwhile, in Toronto, a city with more logistical and administrative issues of scale, McGregor wonders, “what if for one night the realization of artworks really was more important than traffic flow in the west of the city or that 400,000 people more than last year attended or that every hotel room was full. And instead what really mattered is a quiet, small moment of interaction between a viewer and an artwork in the middle of the night on a Toronto street without any product placement, monumental projects or overwhelming crowds.”

Discussion on these topics promises to continue in “Bread & Circuses: The Costs & Benefits of Art Festivals” a Canadian Art/Nuit Talks panel featuring artist and University of Toronto doctoral student Gwen MacGregor, curator and York University Canada Research Chair Janine Marchessault, and Toronto Star art critic Murray Whyte on October 1 from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. at OCAD University, Room 190.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via