Culture & Conversation

Art Inc, Toronto Style

With Robert Lepage, Rufus Wainwright and Philip Glass in the spotlight, Toronto’s Luminato certainly didn’t lack big names. Add Pilon Lemieux 4D Art into the mix, and the multidisciplinary artfest roster was top-heavy with Montreal’s brightest international lights. But make no mistake: it was no Montreal festival.

Launched by the Ontario government six years ago in a drive to bring tourists back to Toronto after the SARS outbreak, Luminato has yet to be fully embraced by Torontonians. It’s not for a lack of high profile support. On top of government backing and heavy corporate sponsorship, Luminato benefits from a massive media presence, with The New Yorker among its key boosters on the international scene. But down on the ground, there’s a different story.

Festivals in Toronto – and to a certain extent cultural events more generally – have a far more obvious corporate face than Montrealers are accustomed to. The promotional branding for Luminato is a case in point: “Luminato and L’Oréal: Partners in creativity.” Funny, since I thought L’Oréal’s interests were mostly…cosmetic. By the standards of this town, Luminato is exceptional in not (officially) affixing a corporate prefix to its own name. The TD Toronto Jazz Festival; the Scotiabank CONTACT photography festival; even Nuit Blanche here – that night when art is ostensibly returned to the masses – is officially Scotiabank Nuit Blanche. The unfortunate result is that, as with Nuit Blanche, Luminato 2012 felt élitist, and more than a little top-down.

This isn’t to suggest the art was less than a cultural enthusiast’s wet dream. A new production of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s landmark 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach, lauded by Le Figaro as “the most spectacular work of the twentieth century,” was by far the most anticipated event. It didn’t disappoint. Robert Lepage presented a riveting new work, Playing Cards 1: SPADES, the first part of an eventual four-part series, and a North American première. Rufus Wainwright, whose partner Jorn Weisbrodt is the new artistic director of Luminato, was another main attraction, delivering the first-ever live performance of his new album Out of the Game. And Montreal multimedia wizards Pilon Lemieux 4D Art presented an English version of their multivisual spectacle La Belle et la Bête: A Contemporary Retelling, originally produced in 2011 for the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde.

With all the above (except Wainwright’s free concert) commissioned in whole or part by Luminato itself, the festival seems tailored for the media spotlight. But scratch beneath the high culture gloss, and there’s trouble brewing below. Despite massive hype and wide critical acclaim, the shows often met with mediocre attendance, even in the case of Einstein on the Beach. In truth, and despite proclamations to the contrary, accessibility seems an afterthought to Luminato’s main goal of crafting Toronto’s cultural brand. The free or budget components to the festival felt token at best, confined to a handful of public art installations in less than central locations, and one outdoor stage in a cramped downtown square tweaked by uninspired art installations and bounded by highrises. Though the programming for the free shows was often phenomenal, and ranged from Rufus to K’NAAN to West African beats and beyond, the small concrete square was often barely filled, and the ambiance and energy levels – at least by Montreal standards – left much to be desired.

But then, Luminato isn’t about popular appeal. It’s about strengthening Toronto’s place on the tourist circuit, and projecting an image of Canada’s largest and richest city to the world. On that score it must be deemed a success, of a kind that speaks to the cultural character of Canada’s Anglo metropolis. Toronto, after all, has no shortage of high-calibre attractions – at least for those willing and able to pay.

But if you come here with the notion that culture ought to be mainly about art and art’s public, or that art is a uniting force to be equally enjoyed by all, well then Luminato may indeed disappoint. On this front, it’s no Montreal Jazz Fest. And I’ll leave it at that.

Shawn Katz is Our Man in Toronto. He is an arts and culture writer, freelancer and political blogger currently pursuing a graduate degree in Communication and Culture at Ryerson University. He is a graduate of Political Science at Concordia University, where he was a national affairs columnist for The Concordian student newspaper. Shawn was born and raised in Montreal.

Check out more from Our Man in Toronto:

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