It seems like a coup: This week, the multidisciplinary Toronto arts festival Luminato announced that its new chief executive officer would be Anthony Sargent, the widely admired former general director of Sage Gateshead, the music centre in England's northeast. But as Luminato moves toward its second decade, it faces questions about its artistic future and financial pressures: It has spent most of the $15-million in provincial startup funds. Does Sargent know what he's getting into? We spoke with him by phone from a conference in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
How well do you know Toronto?
I think I've been four times altogether, but three of the visits were short.
I gather the longest was when you were here for the first time in 2011, as part of the International Society for the Performing Arts Congress, which coincided with Luminato?
That gave me a real sense of the energy the festival gave to the city. I'm enormously attracted by the cultural diversity of Toronto. I've really enjoyed living in culturally diverse communities in London, in Birmingham – and I miss that a bit, living in the northeast of England.
Have you ever been here in the winter?
Haha. I haven't. I've heard about it from so many people. The northeast of England – which is a lot farther north than Toronto – can get cold.
Yeah, sorry. Not even close.
I will be bringing my very warmest.
With you and Jörn Weisbrodt, the artistic director, Luminato will now be headed by two foreigners. Do you think it's important for you to know Toronto well, or not as much, because you see Luminato as a world-class festival that's part of a worldwide network of festivals?
I think it's enormously important to know Toronto well. There's no contradiction in those things at all. It's a world festival, but it's also a festival in Toronto, and to make it work in Toronto, to make sure that one is putting the right things in the right places, to make sure one's respecting the different communities and neighbourhoods, to make sure one's reading the demography of the city right – all of those things, whatever the content of the festival, whether it's local or international, you have to know the city in order to get those things right.
Does it matter if most of the art comes from abroad?
Oh, I think that's fine. I think Edinburgh, Hong Kong, Sydney – those sort of festivals that are known globally as some of the most exciting, most interesting, defining festivals in the world, they have anchors in the cities that they're in, but their content isn't narrowly focused on the cities or the countries that they're in. I mean, I think Edinburgh is a really good example of that. Edinburgh does form good relations with the most interesting and imaginative Scottish work, and it's a strand every year, but it's not a dominant strand. People go to Edinburgh for the chance to hear great work from all over the world, they don't go to it as a showcase for Scottish art.
So, my interest in seeing Canadian artists onstage, sharing this platform, is a little provincial?
No. I think it's a perfectly proper strand for the festival. It would be really remiss for a festival like Luminato if it didn't touch the most exciting things going on in Canada on a year-by-year basis. But I don't think it would be the dominant thread.
Why are you the right man for the job?
Festivals have actually been threaded all through my life, everywhere I've been. I've done one or two very big ones. I did the 10-year 20th-century festival with Sir Simon Rattle, Towards the Millennium. A lot of these great festivals are two weeks, three weeks, and I'm always interested by the way the compressed energy, the very particular way that people operate as audiences and as participants at festivals, relates to what's happening in the arts year-round.
Some have noted that Jörn may not be with the festival for more than another year or two. How important is he to Luminato?
It's a really good question, and he and I have talked about that, as you'd expect. I think he's terrific, and I really respect and admire – actually, I like him a lot, and I said to him, as far as I'm concerned, I'd love to think I'd spend five years working with him. But you're right: I think, realistically, he's a really able young man who's huge, hot and in international demand.
A lot of the job is fundraising. Your predecessor, Janice Price, was very plugged in here. You don't have any on-the-ground connections here. Will that matter?
I don't think so. I enjoy fundraising, and I have really good relations with the people, the donors and investors. I feel very confident in moving to cities that are new to me, and quickly forming fruitful, trusting, productive relationships with the people who are in a position to support the festival. I did exactly that when I moved to the northeast of England and I'm very confident I can do that in Toronto.
And frankly you've got the accent on your side.
So people say! Early in my background, I was actually a presenter and a newsreader for BBC Radio 3, so I've really got the echt version of that.
How familiar are you with Luminato's financial pressures, the fact that they've used up most of their $15-million reserve?
I don't want to say this in a way that sounds critical of people who are working very hard, but I think my arrival will enable us to add emphasis to the fundraising – let me put it that way. I've got a lot of experience dealing with all levels of government – city, regions, federal – and there is a conversation with all three levels of government simply about recognizing the importance of Luminato for Toronto. I think it's probably understood internally, but it may not be well understood what impact it's making for Toronto externally.
In terms of thinking about how the festival is structured – I'm here for five years. I do want to see, during that five years, us exciting and engaging a broader population of Toronto people in the festival. I think there are people who value it highly and respect it highly, but I think we don't always make that connection which the best festivals make, or the most dynamic festivals make with the broader range of people in the city.
Which festivals do it well?
I am very conscious when I am in Edinburgh that in some events you hear lots of Scottish voices, in some you hear almost none. Sydney does do it well. But then, Sydney doesn't quite have that cutting-edge artistic vision, which Jörn has got, and which I respect a lot, and I'm excited by it.
But I think that's a squareable circle. I think it's possible to evolve his vision in ways that a broader cross-section of Toronto people can be excited by. There are pieces of work around the world that have had that kind of effect – very, very big, spectacular, street theatre, street animation, public art – those sort of things. On the whole, they are probably not things that happen in venues, they're probably things that make big splash statements in the public realm.
There was some controversy over the fact that Janice's salary was about $420,000. As you probably know, in Ontario, salaries of public servants paid more than $100,000 are made public. So: What's yours?
Well, at the point that I start, it will be made public, and you'll be pleased to see it is slightly less than Janice's.
Still, a significant chunk of change. How do you justify that to the taxpayers of Toronto and Ontario?
In round numbers, the budget of the festival is sort of around $10-million. My firm intention in the next five years is to develop the private-sector fundraising, trust foundations, donations, investors, sponsors, to very personally take the responsibility for leading the development of those, and also working with Jörn – and if Jörn does move on, his successor – to make sure we're maximizing the engagement that local people have with the festival. That translates into ticket income. Morally, that's not the reason for doing it, but it's a benefit.
What I would want to argue is that, if I can deliver increased private-sector support for the festival, and we can work on the way the program is balanced, in order to strengthen ticket income, I would like to argue with my public-sector colleague investors that that would be a basis for not reducing the support they put into Luminato. Because it's not an attractive proposition to say to a private-sector investor, Please replace this lost public-sector funding. It's a very attractive thing to say. There is this platform of public-sector support, and if you put extra dollars in, the extra dollars will go into the festival, they won't simply go into a hole left by a receding tide of public funding.
When do you officially start?
It's immigration-dependent. We're currently looking at the last 10 days of July, if the immigration process goes smoothly.
I presume our border services will allow you in to the country beforehand, for this year's festival?
Well, I've been invited by the board to [attend] the festival. So if that is an issue, I assume the board would have resolved it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.