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Cirque du Soleil members interact with the public along Queen's Quay during the closing weekend of Luminato on June 13, 2009. (JENNIFER ROBERTS for The Globe and Mail/JENNIFER ROBERTS for The Globe and Mail)
Cirque du Soleil members interact with the public along Queen's Quay during the closing weekend of Luminato on June 13, 2009. (JENNIFER ROBERTS for The Globe and Mail/JENNIFER ROBERTS for The Globe and Mail)

arts

Luminato at five: Big ambitions and an uncertain future Add to ...

For its 2011 edition, Luminato unveils one stage show starring 50 Toronto actresses and another starring 24 performers drawn from across the Middle East; it has invited a local theatre company to perform no less than seven plays in repertory and a local architect to install hundreds of Mylar feathers, glass bulbs and acrylic bladders in a Bay Street atrium; it offers Toronto two magic shows and 10 nights of free music - not to mention one big fat book. Luminato: Painting the Canvas of a City is a glossy, self-congratulatory publication that seems as certain as the five-year-old festival itself that the philosophy of its co-founder David Pecaut is the right one: at Luminato, it has always been go big or go home.

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The Toronto business consultant died 18 months ago of cancer which may explain why, at the tender age of five, Luminato seems determined to both take stock of and celebrate its achievements. Festival organizers are hyperbolic about the excitement the $13-million event, which is largely underwritten by an arts-friendly Liberal provincial government, has created in Toronto, but also frank about the cultural and financial challenges it continues to face. What is Luminato anyway, and what have five years of visits from critically acclaimed international theatre troupes and inflated spheres bouncing around public spaces done for this city?

Ambitious origins

"It sprang up, Medusa-like," said Harbourfront chief executive officer Bill Boyle. "It has been fraught with arguments and discussions about what it is and what it's going to be. It's a very contentious issue and that's good, as long as people are arguing about what it should be."

The festival, the response of two civic-minded businessmen to the post-SARS funk that held Toronto in its grip after the public health crisis of 2003, was launched on an unsuspecting city in 2007 and five years later, Toronto is still trying to figure it out. The idea, hatched during a now-legendary lunch between Mr. Pecault and magazine magnate Tony Gagliano, was part pep rally, part cultural tourism event. Torontonians would be entertained by a massive free street festival while foreign tourists would flock to a high-end international arts showcase. The problem was that very divide created a grab bag of programming both the media and the public had problems defining.

"It's like two separate festivals; it's a challenge," said artistic director Chris Lorway, who is leaving the job after this year's event. He calls the original 2007 Luminato the "bucket festival": "You put a bucket on the table and everybody put something in … It was new and there wasn't any sense of what the festival was. There were great individual things but people were trying to figure out what it all meant."

This is only the second year, after a 2010 Luminato with African themes, that a clear focus has really emerged: Luminato 2011 is about storytelling in general and about Middle Eastern culture in particular, using a big stage adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights, created by the British director Tim Supple in the Middle East, as its signature piece.

That expensive commission - Luminato CEO Janice Price will only say it is costing over $1-million but adds the festival will get royalties on future performances - is typical of the big and unique philosophy advocated by Mr. Pecaut. He was a man who, perhaps aware of his own mortality, believed there was no benefit to be had from the incremental growth of a festival.

Commissions, funding and the arts community challenge

"We test all our programming this way: Would this have been happening in Toronto without Luminato?" Ms. Price said, explaining the festival's preference for art specially created for the occasion.

To work with an artistic community initially envious of Luminato's direct provincial funding and fearful of losing audiences to the event, the festival has had to back off that philosophy a bit. The National Ballet, which plans new commissions years in advance, is simply adding its current Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to the Luminato program. In the first years, smaller Toronto companies that timed new projects to coincide sometimes found their shows looked shabby compared to big-budget, heavily rehearsed foreign work created with an eye to the European festival circuit. At Soulpepper, artistic director Albert Schultz has argued hard that if he is going to compete he needs to contribute the theatre company's existing repertory rather than new projects with teething pains.

Still, it is those splashy new commissions that have garnered Luminato critical praise and foreign attention, and that now earn it much praise from the arts community, especially as the money not only flows to visiting foreign artists, but increasingly to Canadian artists too.

"As a creator, it is one of the few places I can go to get money for a big project; I can't go to [an arts]council for that," said Toronto director Ross Manson, whose Volcano Theatre created the Africa Trilogy, one of last year's critical hits. "It's the missing piece of the puzzle."

These commissions, whether from the Canadians who provide about half the programming, or from foreign artists, require capital. Both Mr. Gagliano and Mr. Pecaut (whose widow, Helen Burstyn, a former adviser to Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty, is now running as the Liberal candidate in Beaches-East York) had impeccable political connections with the current government, and the province gave Luminato $15-million in its second year specifically to commission new work. (Ms. Price says the festival has spent a little over half of that money so far and should not exhaust it for several more years.)

Whether the money is actually buying the cultural tourists Luminato originally hoped to attract is debatable: In 2010, only 66,000 of the 1.1 million people who took in ticketed or free events at Luminato came from outside the GTA, and half of those come from other parts of Ontario. In comparison, the city's $2.7-million Nuit Blanche visual arts festival attracted an estimated 140,000 tourists to a one-night event that drew almost a million people in 2010.

But Ms. Price agrees with observers that the international reputation will be the slowest thing to grow and that the local relationship is key. She said she initially had to plead with Mr. Pecaut to scale back unrealistic tourism predictions.

"I told him, you will not have a festival that survives if it isn't embraced by Torontonians first," she said, echoing a warning Harbourfront's Mr. Boyle has repeated often.

In that regard, what Torontonian can say no to a display of pulsing beams of light triggered by the heartbeats of the audience (2007), a weekend-long water carnival (2008) or the performances by the Cirque de Soleil that pushed local attendance over the one-million mark in 2009?

All of those events were free. Because of its large component of open events, Luminato, which earns only 10 per cent of its budget at the box office, is heavily subsidized by government. The two-week Toronto International Film Festival, for example, gets only 19 per cent of its budget from government sources, while Luminato is 53 per cent government-funded. (The other 37 per cent of Luminato's budget is raised through donations and corporate sponsorships.)

That raises a question for all observers: What happens if Luminato's Liberal friends do not win the next provincial election? Has Luminato earned enough kudos to make it uncuttable?

Surviving financially will mean surviving politically

"If you have an over-dependence on any one stream, you have a problem," Ms. Price said, pointing out the reverse situation suffered by organizations such as the Shaw and Stratford festivals, which are heavily dependent on ticket sales and so very sensitive to a recession. Diversifying revenue is the most important issue addressed in a strategic plan that staff are presenting to the Luminato board in December, she said.

To survive financially, Luminato will have to survive politically, which means it will have to keep walking the tightrope between the populist street event that touches the voters and the critically lauded arts fest that might pull in more tourists. As Mr. Lorway departs, Mr. Boyle suggests that an artistic director with a clear curatorial focus who will define the festival for the public is the thing most required.

Others suggest all that Luminato needs is another five years.

"I think it takes a long time for something like this to find itself," said Soulpepper's Mr. Schultz. "Five years is not enough."

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