Following the cancellation of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival March 22nd, NOC’s Wes Babcock spoke with board member John Goldsmith in a search for more information about the cancellation, the festival’s history, and its future. Dark Day Mondays goes investigative.
In order to better understand the Festival’s cancellation, it’s necessary to talk a bit about it’s history. I’m going to completely ignore the narrative that the Festival has been telling, from its founding in 2003, to focus on the recent history since the Festival ran up a large deficit in the season it ran in Kitchener-Waterloo in 2011. Details about that year’s financial failure are plentiful online, but what is less documented is the work that they’d been doing with the hard lesson they learned in that year.
The Festival’s Board of Directors – which is responsible for ensuring accountability of the staff, and for fundraising – had, up to that point, been largely comprised of theatre professionals. The organization commissioned a study to evaluate its effectiveness, and followed many of the report’s recommendations. Among these was a shift in a focus of the Board’s composition to give it a larger presence in Ottawa, and enabling it to reach out more effectively to local donors and philanthropists.
As we heard last week, these changes let them pay off their accumulated deficit by more than half between 2011 and 2017. However, the press release from MagNorth also noted a second factor in the festival’s cancellation: a cash shortfall.
This past year has seen further significant changes in the Festival’s leadership and structure, including splitting the responsibilities for managing its direction into two positions, occupied by Brendan Healy and Nancy Oakley at the time of the cancellation. Mr. Goldsmith expressed a profound regret that these two had so little time to manage the festival. Basically, they had been locked into the extant 2017 season when they came on board, and hadn’t had a chance to make any changes when the cash shortfall came to bear.
The board had been actively engaged in a new and more extensive round of fundraising outreach, which met with smaller than expected results. This was exacerbated by the rejection of a grant the festival had been counting on receiving from Celebrate Ontario. Despite a few last minute offers of support, such as the NAC forgiving $40000 of debt owed by the festival, fundraising entreaties by the board failed to secure the cash necessary to run the festival beyond May and into the presentation phase. Mr Goldsmith said the cash shortfall was around $250,000, or 25% of the Festival’s annual operating budget.
I want to take this opportunity to unpack what the funding for a festival like this looks like.
This is really interesting, because one of the go-to explanations for the Festival’s struggle is its transient nature. It turns out that this, like most things, is a two-edged sword. While it may have made it difficult to build an audience base in any one city, only about 10% of the Festival’s revenue came from box office sales.
This suggests to me that audience size was really not that important to the festival’s success or failure. With more than 50% of their funding coming from granting bodies at varying levels of government, the Festival’s financial success relied primarily on the whims and priorities of the juries who make up these granting bodies. This was “sustainable” when those grants came through and, as it turned out, irrecoverable when they didn’t. These granting bodies loved the travelling model of the festival, and Mr. Goldsmith suggested that it was a principal factor in their successful application for many grants. MagNorth received regular and committed funding from three organizations (the Canadian Heritage, Canada Council, Ontario Arts Council), based on the impact of their unique model, which formed a significant portion of their budget.
Besides the 60% of funding that I’ve already mentioned from grants and box office, about 25% of the festival’s revenues came in the from in-kind donations of materials and services. Things like the performance space and rehearsal rentals. So if we exclude the things the festival doesn’t actually get money for (in-kind means you can’t use that cash elsewhere), grants accounted for more than 2/3 of the actual cash the festival saw pass across its books.
This is sort of disquieting in many ways. Arts professionals all know how fickle grants can be, so for such a large organization to be so dependent on them gives me pause to think about the whole granting model. It seems to me that the fickle nature of grants discourages the possibility of growing communities around arts organizations and individuals. This isn’t the place to digress about models that might work better, but I’m sure I’ll return to that one day soon. I should also mention that the Festival was looking at options to expand its audience base, and to monetize its presentations more effectively. More on that later.
First, what do I mean when I talk about the community impact of the granting system? There are a huge number of stakeholders affected by this cancellation. Artists, who’d been booked for the festival and planned their touring season around it; festival staff, who’d been depending on it for a pay cheque; and the entire community of theatre professionals, who looked to MagNorth’s Industry Series for professional development and networking opportunities.
This brings me to the Industry Series that the festival ran in conjunction with its stage presentations. These events were really well attended, and Mr. Goldsmith reported that the Industry Series was self-sustaining based on its revenues from registration fees, attendance, and other fundraising. He didn’t have specific numbers in this department, but the Series’ participants provided the bulk of its revenues, with other income sources paying for the staff hours necessary to plan and prepare for it. These events were generally the highlight of the festival for many local artists, and I’ve heard from several who expressed a profound regret at the loss of these opportunities. I quoted some last week. While the general public was welcome to attend Industry Series events, the series was not designed for them.
The Festival’s cancellation means the public also loses, though a part of me questions just how much the Festival considers the public a stakeholder in their existence. The festival prided itself on presenting work with high artistic merit, not necessarily work that was going to generate immense box office revenue. The nature of the programming choices, with their emphasis on new and relatively unknown pieces, certainly also had an impact on audience numbers. While I can appreciate this idea, it seems to me that it doesn’t give much credit either to the artists whose work they do select, or to the public.
Certainly some shows are better experienced in more intimate venues, which puts a hard cap on how many people can see them. But I still find it hard to stomach the attitude that some shows with sufficient “merit” to be featured at MagNorth would lack broad public appeal. If, as Mr. Goldsmith says, the premise of the festival is to “present new productions and artists[, and] to provide them with opportunities to become better known to audiences and most especially to Canadian and International theatre presenters,” those audiences have to be expected to come. I think that even new work with high artistic merit is perfectly understandable, digestible, and desirable to the general public. The problem is that when it comes with an idea that it can’t or won’t be popular because of its newness, or unknown status, or something else, the public encounters several layers preventing their enjoyment of the art. Regardless of how the Festival markets it, if the idea exists in their minds that it may not draw, it won’t. This is exactly what people mean when they say to hope for the best, and plan for the worst; the optimism of that outlook carries on throughout your approach to everything else.
Mr. Goldsmith also noted that the marketing budget and outreach by the festival was “restrained,” both in Ottawa and in the host communities, so it’s little wonder that the festival’s attendance was not a serious source of income. The events the festival held were well-attended, attaining 83% capacity at their events in Whitehorse, despite the limited advertising and venue size. Just for some perspective, the Ottawa Fringe Festival sold about 13,500 tickets in 2015, MagNorth, about 8,700 in its most recent Ottawa-based year. Clearly, there was room to improve attendance.
With the most successful program at MagNorth (in the form of the Industry Series) being explicitly focussed on catering to theatre professionals, broader community outreach not being a priority, and the attitude that their shows aren’t meant to have a large audience, the Festival continued to ensure that it would be reliant on funding bodies for revenue.
Now, it’s important to note that the Festival was making strides towards changing this approach. When I’ve been discussing “the festival” above, I’ve been talking about past iterations of the festival, not anything to do with its prospected trajectory under its new management.
Goldsmith said that Brendan Healy, the new Artistic Director of MagNorth (formerly AD of Buddies In Bad Times), had plans to look at the festival’s model, both in terms of its travelling nature, and its lack of focus on attendance and general appeal, but didn’t have enough time to implement any changes before the cancellation. Additionally, Goldsmith pointed out that several of the festival’s 2016 presentations in Whitehorse were ticketed on a “Pay-What-You-Decide” model. This met with some significant success, as it combatted the somewhat prohibitive cost of tickets to the general public, and also enabled patrons to pay more if they chose. The festival intended to increase its PWYD options in 2017.
There were also some digital-based efforts to increase the festival’s community impact through online dissemination and creation slated for future festivals.
All in all, it seems like the Festival was moving to address some of these concerns, particularly under its new management. Unfortunately it turned out to be too late to save them from the cash shortfall that spurred the cancellation.
Finally, looking forward, Mr. Goldsmith expressed optimism that some form of the festival might find a new incarnation in coming years. Particular emphasis was placed on the hope that the Industry Series might be resurrected eventually. I do want to be clear: he didn’t say it would, but that he hoped it would. There’s the optimism we need. Of course, in order for that to happen, the arts community needs to keep an ear to the ground for when things start to move and support the effort when the time comes.
For now, the Board is fully occupied with the administrative and legal ramifications of the Festival’s cancellation. So we’ll just have to wait and see what happens on that front.
Some of the shows (Trophy, and Making Treaty 7,) that were slated to appear at the Festival in conjunction with NAC’s Canada Scene festival will be going ahead more or less as planned.
The end of this leaves me feeling profoundly dissatisfied. Partly, that is because the cancellation of a festival like MagNorth is really sad. It’s a lost opportunity to participate in theatre for an incalculable number of people; for artists and audiences. And partly because there is still so much to be said about things like this. I wonder what would have happened in a more collaborative and united artistic community, where there was more transparency in financial reporting, and less propaganda (have you ever tried to find out how many tickets the NAC English Stream sold in a year? I have. Their annual report reads like a magazine you pick up at a condo development office, and doesn’t tell you a damn thing). In that world, where we all watched the grant not come in, would we have been able to support this institution? It seems like MagNorth needed a crowdfunding campaign and a larger loyal base of patrons, not another one-off cash injection from a government agency. Cash is good when you have it, but then it’s gone. And when you don’t know where it’s coming from next or when, it turns out it’s really hard to run a festival. Or anything.