Small city, big art: How Guelph, Ontario is leading the way for local arts communities

The city's interdisciplinary Kazoo Festival kicks off tonight — and shows why Guelph just might be "the Hamptons of the arts."

The city's Kazoo Festival shows why it just might be 'the Hamptons of the arts'

Elaquent and the Kazoo Festival. (Vanessa Tignanelli)

As Canada's major urban centres become less affordable, artists are increasingly relocating to smaller cities. Cheaper living means less time spent at joe jobs and more focus on creative work. But a smaller population also means less public to share that work with.

One of the solutions to this conundrum is to pool resources and audience through interdisciplinary events — and Guelph's Kazoo! Fest is a shining example of this approach.

"Bringing together different disciplines in one space is really reflective of the larger conditions in the artistic field right now," says festival manager Alissa Firth-Eagland. "Cultural production is moving towards collaboration and crossover in an active way, and we're seeing that here in a space that still maintains an ethos of accessibility and a commitment to its DIY roots."

The brainchild of director Brad McInerney, Kazoo! was born in 2006 as series of basement music shows. Since then, it's grown to five jam-packed days of bands, films, dance, and visual art. It also includes family-friendly events like a pancake breakfast and an edition of the Guelph Night Market, a pop-up space where local artists and artisans offer quirky creative selections for sale.   

Chris Derksen at the Kazoo Festival. (Vanessa Tignanelli)

The festival headquarters also serve as the space for their flagship exhibition Present Rituals. Made up of films, installations, drawings and digital prints, it explores themes of magic, ritual and witchcraft, with works by FASTWÜRMS, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Emily Pelstring.

"If you're programming an exhibition like this alone, it might be difficult to attract an audience," says curator Scott McGovern, who also serves as program director at Ed Video. "But when you're collaborating you can kind of trick new audiences in. Having these different elements together in the same event gives a much more layered experience. The works inform each other in different ways and you're also pushing the audience slightly outside of what they're interested in."

Cultural production is moving towards collaboration and crossover in an active way, and we're seeing that here in a space that still maintains an ethos of accessibility and a commitment to its DIY roots.- Alissa   Firth-Eagland, festival manager

Also on offer is Short & Sweet — an evening of pint-sized dance morsels. Artists present snippets of works in progress with the caveat that nothing last longer than three minutes. Conceived originally by Montreal dance duo Sasha Kleinplatz and Andrew Tay, the format allows both artists and audiences to take risks: choreographers can try out new ideas without the fear of media or producers seeing them flop, while the public can sample different dance styles without committing to a two-hour show they're not sure they'll enjoy.

"It's got a really casual feeling that's different from your usual contemporary dance show," says curator Katie Ewald. "It's not uptight at all. You can just sit and have a beer and watch some dance. It turns out to be such a magical equation. A lot of people who are new to dance think they're coming to see a stupid show they're going to hate. But then they're shocked to realize they actually like it, which may make them more open to seeing dance in the future."

Short & Sweet at the Kazoo Festival. (Vanessa Tignanelli)

Despite a population of just over 131,000, Guelph is a surprisingly great place to be an artist. The population is highly educated, with the second highest number of PhD's per capita of any Canadian city, eclipsed only by Kingston. Meanwhile, the university's MFA programs contribute to an annual influx of creative minds, who often stick around after graduating. And its geographic location an hour from Toronto means it's easy to swoop into the city when needed, but there's enough distance that it's not living in The Big Smoke's shadow. McGovern says he likes to think of it as "the Hamptons of the arts."

"Audiences here are really forward-thinking, engaged and committed," Firth-Eagland says. "At the same time, it's got this relaxed vibe where people are really into local food and you have time to stop and talk to your barista. I know some people think of it as mini-Vancouver. But I'd rather be compared to Portland."

Kazoo! Festival. April 5-9. Guelph, ON. Various locations.


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