Culture Days Hosts First National Congress on Culture

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By Shira Gilbert

Culture Days
held its first National Congress on Culture on May 24 in Toronto, titled The Art of Engagement: Finding, Igniting and Keeping Audiences.Chair Antony Cimolino, Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival, welcomed the 250 arts business leaders, journalists, municipal arts councils, community organizers and artists for a series of talks, panels and exchanges. An additional 750 people participated online over the course of the day via the live stream. This first “national conversation” comes after three successful years of the nation-wide cultural celebration, which links hundreds of thousands of artists and organizations across the country who present free, interactive arts activities over three days at the end of September. Culture Days, inspired by Quebec’s Journées de la culture weekend, which began in 1997, presented almost 7,000 events attended by 1.6 million people in 851 communities last year.
The morning keynote address was delivered by Ellis Jacob, President and CEO of Cineplex. While the choice of the movie theatre magnate seemed somewhat disconnected from Culture Days’ non-profit, grassroots model, Jacob presented a compelling business story of constant adaptability, citing a focus on relationships and passionate employees as key factors in Cineplex’s ongoing success, despite the current realities of home-viewing and streaming available to movie lovers. Jacob cited the Cineplex Mobile App among the company’s most impressive successes, with over 6 million downloads.

A panel discussion, “Igniting Passion,” was moderated by Gabe Gonda, Arts and Life Editor of The Globe and Mail. Gonda opened the discussion by speaking about recent “disruptions” in economics and government and how The Globe is committed to telling stories about the “disruptors” – those artists and organizations best taking advantage of the evolving landscape. Topics covered by the diverse panel, which fielded questions from the live and online audience, included the importance of forging connections within the community, and innovations in partnerships with business as well as with schools. Mark Lemay of Canadian Heritage urged organizers to draw inspiration from the artists themselves, who are “the experts in creative thinking.”

Robert Sirman
, Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts, delivered a captivating address, praising Culture Days as “a microcosm for the arts ecosystem itself.” Speaking about the Canada Council’s intensified focus on public engagement, Sirman urged the audience to “increase our civic footprint.”

“Marketing Culture in the 21st Century: Challenges and Opportunities, Breaking New Ground,” was the day’s most dynamic panel, moderated by Janice Price, CEO of Luminato. Following only brief remarks from the panelists, Price opened up the discussion to the audience for questions on marketing, branding and engaging audiences. The New York Times Deputy Editor for Culture, Lorne Manly, shared his organization’s new strategies in producing web content and creating interactivity with readers, many of whom are “hybrids” – consuming both traditional and online media. Che Kothari, founder of the hip hop Manifesto Festival was anti-marketing in his message, having built a dynamic following through inspiring individuals and building community through participation and word of mouth. Marketing executive and film and television producer Barry Avichlikened Culture Days to “Participaction”–
the ubiquitous Canadian government fitness campaign of the 1970s – as a way for the country to be “culturally fit.”

A truly national panel discussion featured “Culture Days Success Stories,” moderated by CulturePEI’s Hank van Leeuwen. Several organizations and arts councils reported on successful events in their communities, ranging from Coast Tsimshian First Nations storytelling in northern British Columbia, to spontaneous accordion performances in Saskatoon, and inventive marketing and education partnerships in Sackville, New Brunswick.

The day-long event closed with the presentation of awards to lead sponsor Sun Life, and to Anthony Cimolino for his leadership. A new national Culture Days Awards program is to be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Video of all of the National Congress sessions can be found at Culture Days takes place across the country on September 27, 28 and 29, 2013. The next National Congress will be held in Winnipeg in the spring of 2014.

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