Wednesday, May 29, 2024

How a major cash crunch is putting Ottawa’s festivals at risk

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As grants decrease and expenses mount, Ottawa festival organizers are laying off staff, draining emergency reserves, and cutting programming to keep the show on

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Almost a year ago, as COVID-19 receded into the background, a quarter of a million people showed up during the Canadian Tulip Festival’s opening weekend to take in the flowers, sights and sounds.

Jo Riding, the festival’s executive director, recalls that attendees were more upbeat, less afraid for their health and happy to be out and about. They stayed longer and later at the festival to catch nightly “Battle of the Atlantic” sound and light shows. To accommodate tourists, which typically make up half of the 400,000 people who attend the free-admission festival, shuttles to Dow’s Lake from downtown hotels had to upsize to double-deckers.

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But staging this year’s festival, which runs from May 10 to 20, will be far more challenging because its funding from all sources is down by more than 30 per cent, Riding says.

The festival typically costs $800,000, but its most recent allotments from the Ontario government and the City of Ottawa were both halved, while Department of Canadian Heritage funding was just a quarter of the $200,000 ask.

Because of the decreased funding, Riding had to let go six staffers months ago. She was left to handle the festival entirely by herself for months until she recently brought on two more people.

“I spent all winter working on this thing on my own,” she says, vowing that the 2024 festival would nonetheless be “awesome.”

The tulip festival is far from alone in coping with a cash crunch. Many of Ottawa’s favourite and largest summer festivals also have reasons to fret, and they all have to do with money, or rather, the lack of it.

“Everyone’s in the same boat. Everybody’s struggling very hard,” Riding says.

“These funding systems were teetering on the edge of broken, and then the pandemic just smashed them to a million pieces,” she continues. Less money is available, demand has increased, and funding bodies are facing staffing challenges, leading to delays in festivals receiving funding.

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“You spend in good faith and you come out the other side and you could be on the hook for money you didn’t get,” Riding says.

Her biggest beef, she says, is with the City of Ottawa, which will soon stop funding the tulip festival from its economic development program. Previously, the tulip festival, which turns 72 this year, could count on $100,000 in municipal support. That amount will drop to $50,000 this year and to zero after that, Riding says.

What’s more, that blow will be compounded because potential funders at other levels like to see that the festival is receiving municipal support, Riding says.

“When the city cuts its support, it impacts abilities to raise funds from other sources,” Riding says. “The shrinking starts at home and then goes up the ladder.”

This month, to bolster its coffers, the tulip festival launched an online auction of memorabilia going back decades. So far, though, the auction, which runs until April 5, has raised just $1,460, while the festival’s budget shortfall compared to previous years is about $250,000.

The squeeze is happening for festivals beyond Ottawa, too. But in the nation’s capital, where large festivals run back-to-back during the summer months, there is a cumulative feeling that the festival community has been short-shrifted.

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From the tulip festival and Ottawa International Writers Festival in May to the Ottawa Jazz Festival in June to Music and Beyond in July and Ottawa Chamberfest in July and August, all have significantly less money to work with than they are used to receiving due to decreased government funding and corporate sponsorship.

“Most festivals are seeing cuts to funding — 25 to 60 per cent at the federal level and 50 to 75 per cent at the provincial level, with some being cut out completely,” says Lee Dunbar, interim executive director of the Ottawa Festivals Network. His organization has more than 70 members, from rural fairs to cultural festivals such as Italian Week Ottawa to Ottawa Bluesfest.

Making matters worse is that for festivals, as for everyone and everything else, expenses have increased.

“Coming out of the pandemic, the industry has experienced dramatic cost increases pretty much across the board. (Then) add a labour shortage and supply-chain issues,” Dunbar says.

“So, despite crowds returning, (festivals) are being hit significantly on both sides of the ledger.”

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The festivals least impacted by decreased government grants are likely Ottawa Bluesfest, the juggernaut among the city’s festivals, and the CityFolk Festival.

While both saw significant cuts last year to their funding from the province’s Experience Ontario program, government grants make up much smaller percentages of their respective budgets, says Mark Monahan, executive director of both Bluesfest and CityFolk.

In the case of Bluesfest, government funding amounts to less than 10 per cent of its $20-million budget, while ticket sales, other revenues and corporate sponsorships account for the rest.

With CityFolk, government funding is between 10 and 15 per cent of its budget, Monahan says.

He feels, though, for the predicaments of other festivals. “What the festival industry really needs is stability.”

For the Ottawa International Writers Festival, things were so strained financially in 2023 that the event was nearly forced to shut down, artistic director Sean Wilson says.

Before 2023, Wilson says, his 27-year-old festival had received provincial funding for 15 years straight from the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. Last year, when it had asked for $66,000, it received nothing.

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Sean Wilson, artistic director of the Ottawa International Writers Festival
Sean Wilson, artistic director of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, says the festival had to deplete its emergency financial reserves after it didn’t get the usual amount of provincial funding. Photo by Jean Levac /POSTMEDIA

Then the writers’ festival lost $55,000 on last year’s event and had to drain its emergency reserve fund. If not for two sponsors — the Fairmont Château Laurier and Penguin Random House Canada — stepping up to give the festival what amounted to less than half of its usual provincial grant, the festival would have closed, Wilson says. Instead, it cut staffing by several positions.

According to Wilson, it was “mind-boggling” that festivals with proven track records were denied funding last year, when the grants they receive are investments that enrich the community many times over.

A 2019 Ottawa Festival Network study estimated that the city’s festival industry generated more than $222 million in total spending in 2016, including $122.5 million in visitor spending.

According to Dunbar, the tourism ministry’s Experience Ontario program provided $1.29 million for 24 Ottawa events last year. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2015, 2016 and 2018, the program provided between $3 million and $4 million for 29 to 39 Ottawa events, he says.

Denelle Balfour, a media relations officer for the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, says that the Experience Ontario program is “highly competitive” and that “applications are measured against program criteria — not location.

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“There is no guarantee of funding, including to past recipients,” she says. Last year, the program awarded $19.5 million to 280 festivals and event organizers across Ontario. According to a Global News report, the Experience Ontario program received 680 applications across Ontario in 2023 for a total of $52.5 million.

Wilson says that, when he inquired about why his festival’s application was turned down, he was told “the same old song and dance: These programs are oversubscribed.”

This newspaper asked for a full list of 2023 Experience Ontario recipients but was told it was subject to review under Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Before the pandemic, Wilson says, “all that information used to be shared proudly on the day grant results were announced.

“It’s heart-breaking,” he says. “It’s definitely a difficult time for arts organizations. It’s sad that we can’t get that basic life-support level of sustainable funding.”

Ottawa’s festivals have lots of company on Canada’s arts scene when it comes to financial struggles. In Ontario, according to news reports, Sudbury’s Up Here Festival was denied Experience Ontario funding last year, while the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia and Supercrawl in Hamilton received about half or less than half of what they previously received.

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Earlier in March, the Montreal-based company running the Just For Laughs comedy festivals in Montreal and Toronto announced it was cancelling those events this year even as it laid off 75 employees — roughly 70 per cent of its workforce — and looked to restructure. Court documents showed the company owed nearly $22.5 million to creditors, including the National Bank of Canada and the Business Development Bank of Canada.

To have adequate cash flow, Ottawa Chamberfest, which is gearing up for its 30th anniversary edition this summer, liquidated all of its Guaranteed Investment Certificates. They totaled about 20 per cent of its annual budget, explains executive director Mhiran Faraday.

“We didn’t have enough cash on hand to pay our bills,” she says. “So we don’t have that safety net any longer.”

This month, the festival launched a fundraising campaign with a $100,000 goal. By Friday, it had raised $13,655.

“We’ve always had strong support from donors, but we need to make it abundantly clear right now that we really need this now, more than usual,” says Carissa Klopoushak, Chamberfest’s artistic director.

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Mhiran Faraday (right), Chamberfest's executive director, with Carissa Klopoushak, Chamberfest's artistic director.
Mhiran Faraday (right), Chamberfest’s executive director, with Carissa Klopoushak, Chamberfest’s artistic director. Photo by Jean Levac /POSTMEDIA

Klopoushak says Chamberfest was denied Experience Ontario funding last year, compared to the $275,000 it received in 2018 and 2019; $250,000 in 2021; and $185,000 in 2022.

“It was definitely a shock and huge disappointment to not see that support from the government,” Klopoushak says. The amount, she says, was equal to about 20 per cent of Chamberfest’s 2023 budget, as well as the amount paid to all of its artists.

Julian Armour, artistic and executive director of Music and Beyond, the classical music festival that precedes Chamberfest each summer, says its Experience Ontario funding was also entirely cut.

“Last year we got $185,000. From that to zero is like driving a fast car into a brick wall,” he says. “Sickening, really, is maybe the best word for it.”

Responding to the marked drop in provincial funding, Ottawa Tourism last September announced it would provide what it called “one-time emergency funding support for marquee festivals” that took place in 2023.

By “marquee festivals,” Ottawa Tourism was referring to events that attracted tourists “at a significant scale” rather than “the majority of Ottawa’s 300-plus festivals,” says Jérôme Miousse, Ottawa Tourism’s director of public affairs.

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He would not say how many festivals received emergency funding or how much money was dispersed.

Music and Beyond’s Armour says his event received $125,000 from Ottawa Tourism, which was “extraordinarily helpful.”

But Chamberfest was shut out for Ottawa Tourism funding. Klopoushak says her event did not hit the agency’s target number of tourists attracted from beyond 100 kilometres of Ottawa, a metric usually based on the postal codes of attendees who purchase tickets.

“Our situation became a little more dire,” Klopoushak says. “It’s made our budgeting and planning for the current year extremely difficult.”

Wilson says the writers festival, which he says is considered “one of the very best literary festivals in the world,” did not qualify as a “marquee festival” under Ottawa Tourism’s terms because his event’s budget was less than $1 million.

Meanwhile, the Ottawa Jazz Festival is coping with not only decreased government grants, but also the pull-out of TD as its title sponsor.

Petr Cancura, the jazz festival’s interim executive director, predicts that instead of finding a new title sponsor, his event will have to be content with “a bunch of small sponsors … That’s the trend.”

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Due to its funding situation, the jazz festival did not hold its usual weekend-long Winter Jazz Festival this year, which had been a fixture, even if it was not profitable, every February since 2012. It will also have a “dark” day — a full day without any programming — on Monday, June 24 during this summer’s edition.

The price of full summer festival passes is rising by three per cent, keeping pace with inflation, Cancura says. But the prices of day passes are going up 10 to 20 per cent, he says, “just to make up costs … fencing, porta potties, staging, tents. Those all add up.”

Petr Cancura
Petr Cancura, programming director for Ottawa Jazz Festival. Photo by Ashley Fraser /POSTMEDIA

At the same time, “fees (for artists) have gone through the roof,” Cancura says. But that money is well spent because “dollar for dollar, the money you spend on programming, that’s returned. So shrinking that does not make sense.

“If you start scaling that back, the whole thing will just implode,” Cancura adds.

Chamberfest’s Klopoushak says ticket prices can only increase so much before music-lovers will find them too expensive.

“A lot of people are not having their best life right now,” she says, noting that with groceries costing more, there’s less disposable income for concert tickets.

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“We can’t just hike things up 50 per cent and expect people will come,” she says. Instead, there’s only one avenue left: to be ingenious while programming Chamberfest on a much-reduced budget so it still feels like a celebration.

For Chamberfest’s 30th anniversary, Faraday and Klopoushak hope to mark the milestone with almost two weeks filled with sublime classical music.

“My focus is celebrating the 30 years that we have been around and the 30-plus more years we intend to be around,” Klopoushak says.

“I’m going to do more with less,” she says. “That’s what it’s got to be.”

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