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A scene from Erica Tremblay’s drama Fancy Dance.Handout

It has never been harder to lead an arts organization in Canada than right now. That might be difficult to believe when faced with images of red carpets and cocktail parties, but a closer look behind the scenes finds cultural institutions – from film festivals to performing arts organizations – facing the same economic stressors as everybody else in the country.

Last month, the 27-year-old Toronto’s Reel Asian made a rare public plea for $50,000 in funding as it faced an “unprecedented challenge.” A few weeks afterward, organizers announced that they exceeded their goal, but noted that potential donors should redirect their money to other arts organizations “as we are far from the only ones faced with this situation.”

Take the case of the ImagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto, which is celebrating its 24th annual edition next week in the midst of what executive director Naomi Johnson calls an incredible “crunch.”

“This is the first year in my time here where I’ve had the funds we expect to get not come through, or come in reduced,” Johnson said in an interview. “It’s like that for most not-for-profits, all compounded by inflation and the cost of being in Toronto. It’s insanity to try to keep up with these expenses, particularly for hotels. Our average last year was $189 a night. This year it’s $350.”

Currently, the organization – which is the largest Indigenous film and media arts festival in the world, attracting upward of 30,000 attendees annually – is projecting 22 per cent less in public-sector revenues and 29 per cent less in private-sector revenues (including corporate sponsorships and donations) than in 2022.

“This year we had to be very specific in which artists we can invite and realistically afford, and that just sucks,” adds Johnson. “We can’t keep going like this.”

Still, this year’s edition of ImagineNATIVE is as large and enticing an opportunity as ever before, with 14 feature-length and 70 short films (many of which will also be available to watch online), plus 21 digital and interactive projects, 17 audio works and live musical performances. Highlights include Erica Tremblay’s drama Fancy Dance starring Lily Gladstone (soon to be seen leading Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon), which will open the festival Oct. 17, plus Cody Lightning’s mockumentary Hey, Viktor! and Carol Kunnuk and Lucy Tulugarjuk’s drama Tautuktavuk, both of which premiered to enthusiastic reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. Tickets to ImagineNATIVE films are priced below-market, with single screenings costing $10 ($8 for seniors or students) and five-film packages going for $45.

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A struggling Indigenous actor tries to rejuvenate his career by getting a sequel made to the beloved film Smoke Signals, in star and director Cody Lightning’s wildly funny debut mockumentary, Hey Viktor!TIFF

“It’s about being accessible to the community, because we have a lot of offerings available for people who might otherwise be unable to afford to attend,” says festival director Lindsay Monture, who also notes that ImagineNATIVE’s virtual reality and new-media exhibitions inside the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s gallery space are available to experience for free.

Yet this year’s edition might not have been as generously programmed if ImagineNATIVE’s organizers had been able to anticipate the decrease in government and corporate funding.

“I’m incredibly grateful for what we got, and I know other festivals got nothing, but if I had received that information earlier, I would have scaled down to feel relief,” says Johnson.

Working in ImagineNATIVE’s favour is a current wave of excitement for and coming from the Indigenous screen industry. Not only on the film-festival circuit, but on the small screen, too, where FX’s universally praised series Reservation Dogs is energizing the pop-cultural discourse.

“There are now Indigenous film sections on Netflix and Crave, and it’s so much easier for a new generation of audience to locate the works in which we see ourselves,” says Monture. “The quality of storytelling is becoming stronger, and festivals like ours and others around the world are feeding into that by creating spaces where Indigenous artists can network and collaborate.”

So long as organizations like ImagineNATIVE can sustain themselves, that is.

“We’re looking for sustainability, because we are an economy – we bring in tourism to the city, we bring artists together,” says Johnson. “People and governments need to think about arts organizations like investments. What kind of city do you want to bring visitors to? What kind of city do you want to live in?”

The 24th edition of ImagineNATIVE runs Oct. 17-22 in Toronto at various locations and online Oct. 23-29 (imaginenative.org).

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