This weekend, tens of thousands of artists will flood into performance spaces and community centres across the country in an annual three-day festival known as Culture Days designed to teach Canadians about the importance of the arts.
But behind the scenes, it's the artists themselves who are getting an education. The experience, some say, will be vital in developing their careers.
Launched three years ago to help demystify and democratize the arts, Culture Days brings together more than 7,000 free events across an estimated 850 Canadian communities, from large organizations, such as the Stratford Festival and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, to smaller-scale projects: a medieval festival in Saskatoon and Shakespearean acting lessons at Halifax's Neptune Theatre School. (Flin Flon – population about 5,300 – will host almost 80 events.) Attendance last year was estimated at 1.6 million.
Many of the participants are getting their message out through an "open source" marketing approach. Culture Days, which is funded by the federal and provincial governments as well as large corporate sponsors, developed the sort of branded elements that are common to any marketing campaign: logos, posters, Web banners, e-mail signatures, radio ad scripts and video bumpers that can be inserted at the top or bottom of online promos. Artists and organizations participating in the festival are directed to the main CultureDays.ca website, where they can download those assets and easily customize them for their own purposes.
Meanwhile, the Culture Days headquarters handles the heavy lifting: placing national advertising and securing large corporate sponsorships. The effort echoes projects such as Google's Android operating system, which became popular in part because its open-source nature enabled software companies and app makers to customize it.
"You don't want [marketing] to be top-down, otherwise you can't scale it up," said David Moss, the national director of Culture Days, who took a similar approach when he helped launch Quebec's Journées de la culture in the late nineties. "It needs to be grassroots, with national enabling and messaging and support."
While some arts organizations battle each other for audiences throughout the year, Culture Days puts all of that aside, in the belief that a rising tide lifts all boats. "The artists and organizations have a chance to work collaboratively, they are not competing against each other," he said. "In fact, the more, the merrier: You get more media buzz, you get more attention together. It's a collective, common-purpose goal."
To that end, Culture Days provides a 22-page Marketing User Guide on its website for participants, covering such fundamentals as how to produce customizable posters and postcards, using Culture Days Web banners and how to work with the festival's electronic files in Photoshop and InDesign.
A 36-page Public Relations Tool Kit offers comprehensive advice on dealing with media outlets, how to do an effective interview, and how to best draft a media or photo advisory. While it is intended for Culture Days participants, it can also be downloaded and used by any artist looking for media planning guidance.
Suzette Vidale, a Toronto-based steel pan drummer who has been playing for 20 years, said Culture Days helps artists overcome the fact that they are are usually much better at doing art than promoting it. When she runs workshops that are organized by others, "you always wonder how well the event would be promoted." Teaching artists how to promote themselves, "gives you control."
Vidale believes that the assistance will help her approach sponsors and organizers for other projects. "I've never had to put together my own proposal before. Culture Days actually gave me a model I can follow."