More than a party

Photo credit (left): Randal Tomada

For me, it’s Word on the Street—a nomadic literary festival that pitches its tents on the Halifax Waterfront. I circle the date on my calendar and scrawl “WOTS!” across the numbered square. I study the schedule, then I start counting down.
Just about everyone in Halifax has a pet festival. Martha Radice is a social anthropologist at Dalhousie University. She spends most of her time studying the spatial, social, and cultural dynamics of North American cities. She’s particularly interested in how festivals change the landscape of our cities.
“Festivals often change the space of the city a bit,” she says. “And the way that they change the space, whether it’s by putting up a tent or fans, creating a shady spot, or closing down a street, gives people new opportunities for interactions that they don’t usually have.”
Festival season begins early in Halifax—biggies like GreekFest and OutEast have already come and gone—but isn’t overloaded. “Halifax doesn’t have festival fatigue,” Radice says. “I lived in Montreal, where there are so many festivals that sometimes you go ‘Oh, another film festival. I can’t decide what to go to, so I’ll just stay in my backyard.’”
An event like last year’s Halifax International Busker Festival draws 50,000 to 80,000 people daily (depending on the weather). The 2013 Halifax Jazz Festival drew 52,000 people daily, while another 25,000 per day attended the 2013 Atlantic Film Festival. Those numbers scarcely speak to the benefits a festival can create.

The Social Impact

There’s a barely noticeable tremble in Ramona Westgate’s voice, as she recounts her most memorable Halifax Pride Festival experience: when she heard there would be a vehicle in remembrance of Raymond Taavel, a much-loved member of Halifax’s LGBTQI community who was killed in April 2012. As the Chair of Halifax Pride, she has had many memorable moments, but this one stands out for her.
It’s fitting that the tribute vehicle was so well received, since Pride’s aim is to celebrate uniqueness and raise visibility for the LGBTQI community. “The festival also provides a way for Halifax to exhibit the many organizations that work in this community, and some of the wonderful artists who live and work here,” says Westgate. “We hope that we provide a safe space for individuals to celebrate who they are.”
According to Radice, the Pride Festival is achieving its goal.
“I think Pride, particularly in Halifax, is a fun and inclusive kind of festival,” says Radice. “It serves two purposes—both allowing the LGBTQI identified community to remind the rest of the community that they are present, and also providing an opportunity for those not immediately part of the LGBTQI identified community to show support and solidarity.”

The Economic Impact

Stroll the Halifax Waterfront on the first night of the Halifax International Busker Festival and you’ll get a pretty good idea what it means for the local economy. According to Kim Hendrickson, president of Premiere Entertainment Group, the Busker Festival is almost singlehandedly responsible for filling hotels during the week of the festival. And according to Hendrickson, all these visitors are spending plenty of money while they’re here.
“It’s a free event,” she explains, “so they’re spending their money in the restaurants, in the hotels, and in the shops. They do give money to the buskers, but it’s certainly not what it would cost for a family to go to a movie.”
Last year, organizers cut the Buskers Festival down to six days from 11. Hendrickson says this created a sense of urgency, which in turn drew a bigger crowd. She also states that that many of the waterfront businesses experienced record weekend sales during the festival last year.
But according to Radice, festivals aren’t always an economic benefit. She says that while they do temporarily bump up business, many shops don’t have the resources to handle the influx of traffic. She also points out that festivals often bring in vendors from outside of the area, which sometimes takes business away from local companies. “For example, at the Busker Festival, there are temporary shops that pop up along the waterfront,” says Radice. “Sometimes that can cause tension with local business owners.”
But Radice does concede that well-planned festivals do have the potential to benefit a city economically. “They can attract a lot of tourists, and they draw out a lot of the people living in Halifax,” she says. “And that brings money back to the businesses in the area.”

The Educational Impact

There’s an undeniable educational facet to many festivals. Events like Halifax Greek Fest and the Nova Scotia Multicultural Festival give people the opportunity to explore and learn more about other cultures, while arts events like the Atlantic Fringe Festival and Nocturne offer public exposure to viewpoints, issues, and artistic techniques.
The Peggy’s Cove Area Festival of the Arts is a small summer arts festival that’s been growing in popularity over the past three years. It’s split into two parts, and spread out over two weekends. The first event is Paint Peggy’s Cove, where approximately 35 artists set up on the rocks surrounding the lighthouse and paint for the day. Paula Fredericks, a spokesperson for the festival, says that visitors are encouraged to learn by watching and speaking to the artists. “Parents can take their kids to watch art being made. They can talk to the artist about the artistic process, what inspired them, how they started painting, what they’re looking for, and how it makes them feel,” explains Fredericks.
The second part of the festival is a self-guided studio tour of a number of artist studios situated in the festival’s catchment area, which includes Blandford, Hubbards, St. Margaret’s Bay, Seabright and Indian Harbour.
Radice points out that this kind of festival is also an opportunity for the area to educate the public on its history and cultural value.
“This kind of festival speaks to the heritage of the village. Part of the reason it became so popular is because it appealed to artists, who went there to paint. So it’s kind of a nice reminder of what its history is and what its continued role can be: a picturesque, unique, Nova Scotian environment. Clearly that sort of artistic vibe is part of its heritage, and I think incorporating the arts into that specific place live and in situ is a neat aspect.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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