The concept of Scotiabank’s Nuit Blanche festival is about transforming downtown Toronto into a haven for contemporary art for one night a year. But there’s a price to pay for runaway success.
Ivan Jurakic, director at the University of Waterloo Art Gallery, who curated Romancing the Anthropocene at last weekend’s festival, was disappointed that sections of the festival are getting a reputation as just an all-night street party.
“It’s a real shame, because it’s become the narrative of the event,” said Mr. Jurakic, who has attended the festival every year since 2007.
Over the years, Mr. Jurakic said he usually avoided the Yonge-Dundas Square area, where it often turned into a party, which wasn’t his goal for the evening. “Has it succeeded too much? Can you manage people above one million? I don’t know.”
Although he expected some rowdiness from such a high number of people, he didn’t expect to hear about something as extreme as a fatal stabbing.
Beyond the artwork, the festival included drinking, partying and pop-up raves – which weren’t associated with Nuit Blanche – such as the one at the Adam Beck monument at University Avenue and Queen Street West. A fight broke out at the scene, later connected to the fatal stabbing of 19-year-old Toronto man Rameez Khalid. On Friday, police were still searching for a suspect, Emanuel Lozada, 22, of the Toronto Beaches area, who is wanted for second-degree murder.
There was a second stabbing that night at Yonge-Dundas Square – where a large crowd gathered despite the fact there was no exhibit there – resulting in a victim being taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.
Michael Williams, the general manager of the City of Toronto Economic Development & Culture Division, called the stabbings “terrible,” and said that considering the attendance of Nuit Blanche is up there with Caribana and the Santa Claus Parade, it’s unfair to associate the stabbing death with the event.
“We live in a big city and tragedies sometimes do occur in all kinds of situations,” Mr. Williams said. “But until police do their work, we can’t comment on specifics.”
Toronto Police spokesman Victor Kwong said that any event that occurs in a place of dense populations has the chance of becoming an issue for police.
“Large gatherings draw people for numerous reasons, and it is possible they’re coming for the crowd,” he said. Constable Kwong compared the Nuit Blanche atmosphere to that of the Scotiabank Toronto Caribbean Carnival (formerly known as Caribana).
“Some people use big crowds for the atmosphere, others use it to get a little silly,” he said. “Then you get that one group that does things they wouldn’t normally do. They might see it as strength in numbers.”
There’s no doubt a large portion of visitors make the trip to Toronto solely for the artwork. In 2011 and 2012, the event attracted an estimated one million attendees each night and a combined total of about 290,000 out-of-town visitors, racking up about $72-million in economic spinoff for the city. That’s a long way from the 425,000 people the event garnered in 2006, its inaugural year.
Mr. Jurakic attended Nuit Blanche for the past two years with Crystal Mowry, who co-curated their exhibit and also curates at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery. Ms. Mowry, an expecting mother, knows there are areas of the festival that might not be so family-friendly, but regardless, she said it won’t scare her away.
“It’s a very singular event,” she said about the stabbing. “And I don’t think people who want to see and celebrate what an art event can be will be deterred by that.”
Finlay Braithwaite, who also had an exhibit at this year’s festival,said he witnessed several intoxicated visitors and people who were “high.” However, he thinks there are times when families should bring their kids.
“I would bring them either really early or really late,” he said. “There is a critical flow of drunk energy between midnight and three, but before that or after that, it’s a family-safe environment.”
John Notten, an artist who was participating in his fourth year of Nuit Blanche, had a different experience.
“I stood next to people who were talking, and it wasn’t about drinks, it was about art,” he said. “I think it was a great, peaceful and wonderful event, but on this night, something terrible happened.”