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As Nuit Blanche returns to Toronto, artistic director Julie Nagam is busy handling fabrication issues, last-minute logistical matters, and, just generally, making sure all the many pieces that go into one of North America’s largest free public art exhibitions find their right place before showtime. The all-night arts extravaganza, expected to draw more than a million revellers from sunset Oct. 1 to sunrise Oct. 2, will be the first in-person edition since 2019. For the artist and academic based in Cooks Creek, Man., near Winnipeg, who was originally tapped for the 2020 festival, which had to go virtual, it’s a night literally years in the making. The event will include the work of more than 150 artists and, for the first time, it will stretch across the whole of the city, with exhibitions downtown, as well as in Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke.

Nagam calls the festival “the unsung hero of contemporary art.” While we mostly know what to expect when we walk into a museum or gallery, she says, Nuit Blanche does something different. “And I think that’s what’s so exciting about it for me: It’s that moment where we can transform public space in a way that we never imagined was possible.”

Ahead of the big night, The Globe and Mail spoke with Nagam about snowboarding, historical fiction and some of the other off-the-clock enjoyments that help her find new inspiration.

It’s maybe been a while since you’ve had one of these, but what does your perfect day off look like?

I feel like if I were to describe the perfect winter day, it would definitely be tea and then snowboarding. That, to me, is bliss. If it’s summer, then it’s like tea, breakfast and lake swimming, playing with my kids, reading a book and just enjoying nature.

It sounds like it starts with something relaxing and then it moves on to something more exciting.

I think, for me, it’s maybe the more contemplative part of the morning, starting in a way that feels grounded. And then the activity’s also grounding, because it gets you outside and active and you’re doing something fun, and you get to experience the environment around you.

You mentioned books. What’s the last great book you read?

I’m reading A Delhi Obsession by M.G. Vassanji. My plan, as soon as Nuit’s done, is to finish the last 70 pages. I was also reading the new Shani Mootoo book. For me, I really like historical fiction. When I first started reading outside of so much theory and non-fiction writing, I read the book The Cinnamon Peeler by Michael Ondaatje and I realized that I liked fiction and I hadn’t read fiction in a really long time.

Is there something that you seek out or something that you do whenever you visit a new city that helps you to get to know the place better?

I’m a big fan of Jane Jacobs and that exercise where you’re walking and experiencing the city. I’m not really the kind of person who has to go see the big touristy thing; I really like the nuts and bolts of the city. So, like, trying to find where it’s pumping, and you walk around and it kind of feels like maybe it’s your city for the day.

So, walking is important. How do you see a city differently when you’re walking around it?

I think you really start to notice the environment and the people and the buildings and the infrastructure around you when you’re walking – or biking. You know, that kind of slower movement through a city? You really get to experience it. I feel like driving, it’s kind of an injustice to a city space … I think cities really need to be experienced on the ground.

Where’s somewhere you regularly go when you want to find inspiration? And why is it such a rich source for you?

It’s definitely the bush. It’s definitely nature. The land is a living entity, right? You can hear the trees and the leaves and the birds and the little critters that are running around, but you get that kind of stillness and quietness to it. It just really allows you the freedom to kind of open up your mind.

Can you tell me about a couple of places specifically that you like to visit for inspiration?

Birds Hill Provincial Park, where I live, for cross-country skiing and walking, Seagrim Lake for canoeing and Asessippi Park for snowboarding.

And, tell me, what’s something that you find is on your mind a lot these days?

Definitely people’s welfare around being able to live in affordable places as well as the kind of longer, larger-scale impacts of the pandemic on people’s mental well-being and health. We have a really localized problem or issue around that, but we also have a big kind of global conversation around that.

So how do you respond to something like that that’s on your mind?

I think by getting excited by what we’re doing. You know, focusing on providing opportunities for new artists and people. For a lot of the artists that we’ve met with – and we’ve been working with a lot of them through the pandemic – it’s been really great to just see their eyes light up when you’re talking about the project and the possibility and you ask them, ‘Just dream: What would you want to make if you could just make anything?’ I think feeding off that energy, it makes those issues a little bit better.

This interview has been edited and condensed.