TORONTO — Luminato, the festival of arts, culture and ideas that just concluded in Canada's largest city, has only been held for four years. But this citywide extravaganza already attracts a collective audience in excess of 1 million and spends millions of dollars on the commissioning of expansive international creations like Tim Supple's "1001 Nights," a show that used 24 actors from across the Middle East and that was supposed to then come to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater before visa issues killed, or at least postponed, the booking.
But for all the lofty artistic aims spoken at Luminato, which claims to be the largest multi-arts festival in North America, one message here rings the loudest and the clearest: This festival was created to promote its home city and build its cultural prestige around the globe. Or, as the manifesto of the co-founders puts it: "to shine Toronto's light on the world and the world's light on Toronto." You can't say it much clearer than that.
Surely, there are several lessons here for Chicago, a city that desperately wants to improve its international reputation and currently minimal share of foreign tourists. According to figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Chicago's share of international visitors to the U.S. actually shrank between 2009 and 2010: from 4.7percent to 4.5 percent, a share already below that of much smaller cities like Boston. In 2010, Toronto attracted roughly 2 1/2 times as many international visitors as Chicago.
Aside from the speedier processing of visas for international artists in Canada, there's another way you know you are no longer in the United States: Luminato makes only about 10 percent of its $13 million annual budget at the box office. In fact, most of its biggest events, like this year's outdoor k.d. lang concert, are free. More than half of its funding comes from the various levels of government: city, provincial and federal, with Ontario carrying the lion's share. Remarkably, the province has given Luminato a separate $15 million grant, to be used specifically for the funding of new works. It has commissioned, or co-commissioned, more than 40 in five years, coming up with premieres from the likes of Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, Leonard Cohen, Atom Egoyan andRobert Lepage.
Janice Price, the executive director, claims Luminato pays off handsomely, and in multiples, for all its stakeholders. Citing figures calculated using government formulas, Price says last year's Luminato spawned more than $132 million in visitor expenditures, with most visitors saying Luminato was the main reason they were in Toronto. And those are Canadian dollars that, thanks mostly to the way Canadian banks avoided excessive exposure to toxic mortgage-backed securities, are currently worth slightly more than U.S. greenbacks. And then there is the matter of a changed perception.
"We needed to improve our brand on the world stage," said Price, in an interview in her office. "People still thought of Toronto as a bunch of white guys wearing parkas. But 50 percent of the population of Toronto was not born here."
Luminato was born from a big idea forged by two businessmen: David Pecaut and his friend Tony Gagliano. (Pecaut, a Toronto-loving American and a partner at the Boston Consulting Group, died of cancer in 2009.) Right from the start, the pair, regarded around town as masters of influence in corporate and governmental circles, had little time for incremental growth. In big cities like Toronto or Chicago, they argued in their early proposals, no one pays attention to small events. It was, in Chicago-style language, a case of making no small plans and raising no small amount of money.
At the start of their planning, Toronto was more than ready for a stimulus of the cultural sort. The city was reeling from the 2003 SARS viral infection crisis that crippled its international tourism. In the years that have followed, passport requirements and the decline in the U.S. dollar contributed to a massive falloff in visitors from the United States. In an interview, John Karastamatis, a spokesman for the powerful Mirvish organization, which presents Broadway and West End shows in Toronto, said the U.S.-based audience for big shows in Toronto has dropped precipitously from as high as 50 percent during the summers of the early 1990s to, currently, less than 2 percent. The Mirvishes, who control many of the downtown venues here, have thus had to reinvent their entertainment operations as a domestic Canadian entity. (According to research commissioned by Broadway in Chicago, Chicago has received some of the benefits of cultural tourists from, say, Michigan, who would, in the 1990s, have been much more likely to go to Toronto.)
But Luminato has set its sights on the international market, where Chicago's draw was and is weak.
Pecaut and Gagliano decided that Luminato had to be composed of two main elements: prestigious, large-scale international works that would attract far-flung visitors and global media attention and that would allow Toronto to both partner and compete with such existing festivals as the ones in Edinburgh, Scotland; Sydney; and Avignon, France (all of which enjoy ample public support).
And then there had to be something different for the locals, something more at the street level to generate ownership and excitement. In general, that has meant free pop and rock concerts and generous commissions to local arts groups to create new work that would become part of the festival and make it appealing, for example, to the trendy young urbanites who live in Toronto's many downtown lofts. As a result, studies show that significantly more than half the attendees at Luminato are younger than 34. And cultural professions are happy. "We give our local artists the chance to dream a bit," said Chris Lorway, Luminato's artistic director, in an interview during this year's festival.
Pecaut and Gagliano further determined that Luminato must focus on what they called "unique events," thus refusing to cobble together a festival from ordinary existing programming (collectively marketing previously scheduled events is a common way to attempt a festival on the cheap).
Over the years, "unique events" has translated into the premiere of an opera by singer Rufus Wainright or an oratorio by Monty Python's Eric Idle. Unlike most U.S. festivals, which tend to be highly segmented, Luminato has promoted a judicious and highly eclectic mix of pop culture and the so-called high arts. It also has found a prominent place for books and ideas. This year's festival had magic and fashion events. A partnership with The New Yorker magazine this year produced a variety of programming, including talks on current events and phenomena by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, David Remnick and the Chicago-based writer Ted Fishman, who, spotted on the plane from Chicago to Toronto, said he was going to Canada to get the chance to talk about China.
Commissioning is a key to the Luminato formula. In the case of "1001 Nights," for example, Supple was struggling to get funding for the research-and-development portion of his project — which involved finding actors from throughout the Middle East who could collaborate on a kind of reclaiming of "1001 Nights," creating an Arab version of an Arab story.
"I was really struck that no one was doing work from that region," Lorway said. "I thought the R & D was the most interesting piece of what Tim was doing."
So Lorway and Price came up with more than $1 million in funding, and Luminato had the premiere — and a royalty interest — in a show that Edinburgh will present this summer.
Much of what Luminato does in Toronto already exists in pieces in Chicago: International theater programming comes to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (which, in the newly announced plans for Navy Pier, is likely to get an additional large venue) and the Goodman Theatre; the Chicago Humanities Festival offers programming based on ideas; the Tribune-owned Lit Fest features authors and their books; Just for Laughs, a Canadian import, focuses on comedy. But none of these has the power alone to fill a huge city's hotel rooms or draw international media.
It would be wrong to characterize Luminato as wholly secure or universally supported. In a recent article, The Globe and Mail questioned whether the festival could sustain its level of support in the face of governmental change and a new emphasis, at all levels of government, on austerity. And internal change is also in the works: Lorway, the man who commissioned Supple's "1001 Nights," an earthy, sexual and exceedingly long show that did not attract capacity houses nor retain all of those who did show up, is leaving his post this summer. Still, even though some of its commissions struggle, Luminato explodes all over Toronto for 10 days in June.
The closest Chicago has come to Luminato was perhaps the International Theater Festival, which existed from 1986 to 1994 (festivals were only held every two years) and the eventual demise of which is often held up as evidence of the difficulty of creating international cultural festivals in a city with so many arts nonprofits competing for resources.
But Jane Nicholl Sahlins, who ran that festival, argues that the time is now right to explore the idea again. "When we started, people internationally would say, 'Chicago? Where's Chicago?'" Sahlins said. "Now they would not say that. And at that time, we were not a priority within the city. And the city has to be behind this kind of thing."
Of course, it takes money to run a festival like Luminato, as Sahlins well knows. You have to find the right time of year. You have to create work as well as just present it. There has to be buy-in from turf-aware local institutions, with which Sahlins says she often found herself competing for scarce funding.
But while there is international work at Luminato, it is not an international festival but a celebration of an international city. A city whose hotel rooms it fills for a good chunk of June. That, perhaps, is a crucial distinction. Luminato doesn't just bring in work from outside; it also creates work from within and then shouts about it globally. Furthermore, as Price noted, festivals are a different beast. They help people follow the arts. "You can't just hit them with a wall of stuff," she said. "You have to provide context."
Intriguingly, Price argued that free events are actually far more attractive to corporate sponsors like L'Oreal, one of Luminato's biggest supporters.
"If you are in a big, beautiful park getting an artist the caliber of k.d. lang for free," Price said, "you appreciate the sponsor. And you don't mind if you see a couple of banners."
Perhaps in Chicago, you do not entirely have to start from scratch.
"I have often wondered why somebody doesn't combine something with the Humanities Festival," Sahlins said. Through a spokesman, those who run the Humanities Festival said they would be "fine with that."
Perchance in such a marriage, or a similar union, lies Chicago's Luminato.
Maybe. It takes an upfront investment and a big communal buy-in. And if you follow the Luminato model, you don't ever try to build anything up slowly.
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