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It was a bright response to a dark time. Born in the wake of the SARS crisis, the annual 10-day Luminato Festival aimed to bring tourists back to Toronto. But first it brought back Janice Price, a self-proclaimed gypsy who had left town to serve in executive positions at New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and Philadelphia's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. During her eight years as CEO, Price helped build Luminato into an acclaimed event where the trains run on time, if not always on budget. Her next stop: heading the Banff Centre.

You're leaving Luminato as it's about to run out of its one-time $15-million fund from the Ontario government.
We did steward it for about seven years—I think the government had felt we might make it last for three. But we always knew that was going to be the only big infusion of seed funding that we would get.

You also get millions in government grants every year, right?
We're working very hard to decrease our dependence on provincial funding. But we will always need it at some level.

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How do you make the case to increasingly tense taxpayers that this makes sense?|
We talk about the 70% of our programming that's free, while at the same time we have Einstein on the Beach at the Sony Centre, or the Joni Mitchell tribute concert at Massey Hall. It's that whole spectrum, from totally free to edgy and emerging. And a big part of our case to the province was: Here was an opportunity to invest in a culture event that would be globally recognized.

Luminato strikes me as being like the Yankees: a collection of high-priced all-stars that you could see anywhere.
That is accurate. Except I would argue that not having seen the Pina Bausch dance company in 30 years in Toronto is a cultural gap. Mark Morris Dance Group hadn't been in Toronto for 20 years. This isn't Live Nation stuff, this isn't booking artists who are out on a summer tour, saying, "If it's Tuesday, I must be in Toronto." This is very, very curated.

Your predecessor at Banff, Jeff Melanson, sketched out a billion-dollar vision out there and then left to become CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Will you fulfill his vision?
I don't know enough about that plan to really comment on it yet.

If that goes forward, it's going to take hundreds of millions in government money. Why is investing in art and culture good policy?
For the economic spinoff benefits. Last year [at Luminato] it was $93 million—we had a big jump because we had more tourism visitors. I'm a big believer in the all-boats-rise theory. And you have that whole Richard Florida case around cities that understand that the cultural sector, writ large, really does make quality-of-life for the millennials.

About 40% of your budget comes from donations and sponsorships. Why is investing in the arts good for business?
Ipsos Reid does research for us every year—at a dramatically reduced not-for-profit rate—where we ask our audiences, "Do you remember the corporate partner [for a particular show]? Does that make you feel more positively about them?" There are certain companies that audiences may say, "Wow, that's a real turnoff for me."

Like Ashley Madison, the cheating website?
Exactly! When I worked at Lincoln Center, we had Midsummer Night's Swing on the plaza—people could go in and dance on the dance floor there. We were approached by Viagra. We declined.

I know you've said Luminato doesn't have an above-the-title sponsor, but let's stop beating around the bush: How much is it going to cost me to make it the Simon Houpt Luminato Festival?
I don't think that would be something that we would see happening in the future.

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This interview has been condensed and edited.

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