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Naomi Campbell has been named Luminato's new artistic director.

Taku Kumabe

Toronto’s Luminato Festival did not have to look far for its next artistic director: Naomi Campbell, deputy artistic director since 2017 and a full-time producer at the festival since 2013, will take on the prominent role following the surprise departure of Josephine Ridge in July.

Campbell, a well-known and well-liked Canadian producer with a long freelance career in the country’s indie theatre scene, comes to the position at the international arts festival through an internal promotion by the CEO, rather than a candidate search. The appointment comes just two months after her predecessor stepped down, saying the festival’s budget could not sustain her vision.

In an interview ahead of the official announcement, Campbell said Ridge was inspiring to work alongside and that she was sorry to see the Australian producer, who quickly endeared herself to the Canadian arts community, leave – but that she hoped to carry forward much of her vision for the festival within its current financial means, diminished from its first decade of existence.

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“I don’t know that [Luminato] will look drastically different from the last two years, because we worked together quite closely,” she said.

Campbell cited Ridge’s interest in political work and creating conversations around it, her support of Indigenous performance and the festival’s new partnership with long-time live art incubator the Theatre Centre as aspects of her predecessor’s tenure she’d like to carry forward.

“I know what we have to work with – and it’s still a lot to work with,” said Campbell, who grew up in Sackville, N.B., and Ottawa. "We can make something beautiful happen. It’s not going to be the Hearn Generating Station, but that’s okay.”

It was at the Hearn that Luminato celebrated its 10th anniversary impressively and expensively back in 2016, in the final edition of the festival curated by Ridge's predecessor, Jorn Weisbrodt, and with a budget of around $11-million.

But financial realities kicked in the following year as Ridge took the reins, with the festival’s budget shrinking to $6.3-million by the 2018 edition.

CEO Anthony Sargent expects that Luminato's 2019 budget – not yet approved by the board – will dip further to around $6-million, but then projects that it will grow again slowly in the future.

While the festival, founded in 2006, has used up its initial “startup fund” of $15-million for programming, and a lucrative sponsorship by L’Oréal that averaged $1.3-million a year has come to an end, its ticket revenue grew to $1-million in 2018 and it continues to get funding from three levels of government – including $2.5-million a year from the Ontario government, said Sargent.

That provincial funding, however, comes directly from the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, rather than from the province's arms-length funding agency, the Ontario Arts Council, making the festival vulnerable to changes in government direction.

Are there any fears among Luminato’s leaders that the new Progressive Conservative government and Premier Doug Ford – who vowed to trim nearly $6-billion from the provincial budget during the election – will put the downtown Toronto arts festival in its sights?

“It’s new days for everybody in Ontario,” said Campbell, whose résumé includes work with companies such as Nightswimming and Mammalian Diving Reflex as well as three years producing the industry series at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival. “There’s a consciousness that [the PCs] have a different agenda from the previous government, but we’re working with them. We’re working with the deputy minister.”

Added Sargent, whose career in the arts in Britain took place under governments both left- and right-wing: “Nothing that I’ve seen or heard from Queen’s Park at the moment and conversations I’ve had with people there … gives me an impression that this is a government implacably opposed to culture.”

Large arts organizations in Ontario have been increasingly and controversially conducting international searches for leaders such as artistic directors – but Sargent, who, as Luminato's CEO, is in charge of hiring, said he had a good idea of what candidates were out there from the search that brought Ridge to Canada not long ago. "It seemed to me Naomi was such an extraordinary person and such an extraordinary resource for this city and this province … the equal of anyone that would result from any search,” he said.

Though the search for its new artistic director was not international (or even outside the office), Luminato will continue to be open to the world, Campbell said, expressing a commitment to maintaining a component of international work at the Toronto festival and a desire to broaden it beyond the English-speaking world and to Africa and South Asia.

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"Thirty years ago, I was a Canadian theatre nationalist … that’s where I come from. The need to nurture and develop our voices was essential at that time," she said. "Now, it’s really important that we see work from other places as artists and audiences. … Toronto deserves a festival that includes international work."