Skip to content

Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Festivals: The crack cocaine of culture?

Read more articles by

Exterior of the Musee d'art contemporain de Montreal, from

Okay, okay, okay. I thought I was done with talking about Luminato. And I was, I really was, I swear. I even moved on to doing other things like the art reviewing and artist/curator interviewing that pay the rent when I’m not Spacing-ing out.

And then, in the course of an (initally) innocent interview with Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal director Marc Mayer on the occasion of the Quebec Trinnial, the subject of festival futility reared its ugly head again. Mayer, ex of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Albright Knox, and the Power Plant, was just so delightfully provocative in pronouncing festivals “the crack cocaine of culture,” as well as calling cities out on their cultural rivalries, that I felt compelled to revisit the subject.

Here’s an excerpt from the condensed interview published in today’s National Post:

LS: Some play up a rivalry for creative supremacy between Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Do you participate, or do you think that’s stupid?

MM: I think it’s a stupid debate. Canada’s too big to have a centre of anything. We have competing cities but they’re so different, with different cultures, different attitudes. I’m completely mercenary and if it serves my purposes I’ll bring it up, but overall it’s something that frankly bores me, and Montreal is the worst offender. It gets on my nerves when they go on about “Toronto’s the centre of the universe when we used to be.” No one was the centre of the universe! We have to assume our own fate. And Montreal’s fate is a cultural one in any case, I think.

LS: Speaking of that fate, what do you think of Richard Florida-influenced governments funding culture to boost urban economies?

MM: Well, I’m against [funding only] festivals. I think they’re the crack cocaine of culture. We put way too much emphasis on them; they don’t have the long-term effect on a city and its people that constant programming can have. Having access to culture – opera, theatre, film, art – year round is not the same thing as having a festival that celebrates a particular niche of culture two weeks a year. I think that my opinion is widely held, of needing to create renewable resources in culture as opposed to tent cities.

And here’s an elaboration on the idea excerpted from the full transcript of the conversation posted on my art blog, Unedit my Heart:

MM: I think Montreal is like Berlin and Toronto is a cross between New York and Chicago but a much smaller city. But the country is so vast that I’m not programming for Toronto. [AGO Director] Matthew Teitelbaum is programming for Toronto. So we can’t be rivals when we’re not talking to each other. There’s so few people coming up from other parts of Canada to see the Triennial; I think 100 to 200 people will come from Toronto to see the show, the diehards, and that will be a significant group.

I do get kind of tired of it. Montreal needs to assume its fate and stop looking over its shoulder and Toronto needs to start taking art seriously. Although they’ve contributed half a billion to museums, new art is the locomotive of this cultural train and there’s not a high enough profile for new art in Toronto. And there’s always been one in Montreal, a very sophisticated network of artist-run centres and two major sophisticated university galleries and another museum that does lots of art, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and a commercial gallery scene that is getting bigger and growth in private museum scene. There is the DHC and there are other local people thinking of contributing to that.

And so even if the city [Montreal] is not consciously invested in the visual arts, it can’t help to grow now, it’s got so much talent. So if we stop looking over our shoulders and stop thinking just about festivals—this festival mentality really gets on my nerves, I’m not someone who would encourage that kind of thinking. We’re not in Germany where the cities are an hour away from, each other so other cities are not really places that I think about when I’m programming here. Of course, I’m completely mercenary and if it serves my purposes I will bring I up. But frankly I think it’s beside the point… I think it’s too boring to mention.

Personally, I think he’s right on the money with one Toronto problem — mass funding of cultural buildings and festivals, but not artists. This issue alone raised quite a kerfuffle in the arts community earlier this spring when those millions of government dollars were being fed out to the ROM, the AGO and the Luminato. (See this sarcastic art response over at Akimbo.)

I’m also rather shocked to see the words “centre of the universe” being a Montreal neurosis as well. I guess no one’s invincible.

Image of the Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal from its website



  1. Re: Centre of the universe

    Why is this surprising? Up until the 70s or so when the mass exodus of corporate head offices occured, Montreal was the biggest, most important city in Canada (aka ‘centre of the universe’). Then, fortunes changed. Any city would wind up with some kind of a complex out of that. And Toronto’s will only worsen if/when another city grows large enough to draw all the money away from it.

  2. I’m probably crazy, but I don’t quite understand why artists need so much funding. I mean, which “artists”, and what for? I write poems and record songs and make zines and it costs next to nothing. although I don’t do it for a living. So is funding meant to help an ‘artist’ make a living from her creations? Or is it to allow for more expensive undertakings, like better quality recordings of music, for instance, etc., or to reach a larger audience?

    I don’t mean to imply that art funding oughtn’t to be a priority, because it should, but I’m just curious about its purpose.

  3. I agree with Josh… Funny thing is that Montreal seems to work pretty well as a large city. If that’s what “former centre of the universe” looks like, it isn’t such a terrible fate.

    As for the funding issues, it’s not a whole lot different than other (non-arts) areas. People demand new parks even though the parks department can’t afford to maintain the current ones; the TTC has a much easier time getting funding for Transit City than to improve existing streetcar lines. I don’t think anyone’s trying to kill off the arts community, but I do think politicians and donors are drawn to the immediate, tangible results you get from buildings and festivals.

  4. Hey Alexander,

    I think it’s good to be curious about the aims of art funding. Even working in the arts myself there are times that I see a chunk of change get doled out and I go “Er, maybe that could have helped a hospital more than a museum CEO?” I’m with you on that.

    And I think what Mayer is saying (as well as Clive Robertson and Vera Frenkel, the two artists who created that sarcastic diatribe) actually has a lot to do with that question.

    For example, using arts money for festivals rather than year-round programming. There are certain benefits to that–particularly in terms of concentrated media coverage and quick audience development. But if you consider the same approach in terms of other public services, it doesn’t make much sense.

    For instance, what if a festival approach was taken to transit? You’d have ten days of supercharged transit service; transit buses and trains in from all over the world, say, and transit on all kinds of routes you don’t usually get, like a bus down Milky Way, for example. Frequency would be increased to terrific levels; you’d never have to wait for a streetcar.

    But after those ten days, service would return to the same levels as usual. Which we all know are currently insufficient.

    Here’s another analogy. What if a starchitectural-buildings approach was taken to transit as it has to the arts? We’d have some very expensive, terrific-looking stations that win Conde Nast accolades. But admission would skyrocket to $5.50 (twice what it used to be). Service might get a smidge better, but fewer could access the service itself.

    That might seem like a bizarre fantastical digression, but in fact I had never thought of the arts funding problems that way until these comments arose.
    Now in a way they provide useful examples of why festival approaches don’t necessarily work in other aspects of public service–and why they similarly shouldn’t be relied upon or overly funded in the public service aspect of the arts.

  5. I was in MTL recently. It looks and feels more like a federally funded urban theme park, more than a real city.

  6. THis is a very timely topic and the “crack” analogy is very apt. Personally I think there is room for all levels of artistic activity but if I had to pick I would go for living an a community where local creativity was more important than what was called “tent cities”. A similar reason why I am against the Olympics preferring instead community centers and free swimming pools.

    As I have said before there is a real concern that this “habit” is eating up all the funding for existing local artistic projects and I would add that it is also creating a sense that art must be an “event” or “spectacle” to matter. And that art has to exist within a corporate model run like a corporation. I like my art a bit rough around the edges so I sense the beginning of an anti-event movement in the spirit of Newmindspace.

  7. So here’s a Montreal/Toronto arts question then….can anyone comment on the grassroots, bottom up approach of Montreal’s “Maisons de Culture”/local neighbourhood ‘culture centres’ as oppposed to other city’s perhaps more top-down approaches.

    Can any Montrealers comment on how funding these bottom up incubators works in real life?

  8. Dabusan,

    I’ve often wondered about that myself, the MdC approach. I’ve seen mixed reviews but do appreciate the principle, and wish we had some in TO.

    Montrealers, any ideas?

  9. The few fests I’ve worked with have been best-case examples and I wouldn’t describe them as “crack”.

    Many people who work for fests tend to be artists, so fests can support them — and, indirectly, their work — by offering them jobs. Politically, it seems easier to justify giving someone an arts fest “job” than funding the artistic process directly. And mature festivals do offer year-round support and programmes for audiences and creators.

    But I don’t seen how something positive like that can develop from the fast money and corporate interests that dominate something like Luminato.