Harbourfront Centre: The Cultural Hub of Toronto

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By Dale Sproule

If you went to Harbourfront Centre on a typical Sunday afternoon last summer, you would have experienced one of their weekend festivals – with as many as quarter of a million people tasting foods from around the world, shopping at the marketplace and watching and participating in up to 50 events at a variety of stages and venues. There’s music, dancing and colourful culture everywhere you turn.

Their World Routes 2006 had a different focus every weekend. From the Hot and Spicy Food Festival featuring culinary hot dishes of the world to events like Island Soul, Ho-Hai-Yan Taiwan, Ritmo y Color with its focus on Mexico, and Ashkenaz at the end of the summer which looked at contemporary Yiddish culture.

Heather Waddell, the Director of Planning for Harbourfront Centre says “There’s the odd paid performance in the Studio or the Brigantine Room but during the summer 90-95% and some weekends 100% are free to the public.”

No wonder the Harbourfront Centre has become such a huge draw for newcomers from all ethnic communities. As the cultural hub in one of the world’s most multicultural cities, this fabulous 10-acre venue has something for everyone and it’s almost all free.

Twelve and a half million people use the Harbourfront Centre’s facilities every year. According to Bruce Hutchinson, the centre’s Director of Marketing and Media Relations, “It has a huge attendance from a diversity of people – that are mirrored right across Toronto.”

Waddell explains, “Diversity is a big mandate with this company right now.” That includes a diversity of age, background and cultural makeup. We received funding from Trillium Foundation for a 3 year process in which we are doing several initiatives in community cultural engagement, diversity and access. This diversity runs through the whole organization from the board down to staff of approximately 350 people.

What Is Harbourfront Centre?

“It’s a non-profit arts and culture organization with contributions from 2 primary partners,” says Waddell. “We have an operating lease with City of Toronto. Under that operating lease they have a financial commitment to us and we are in the process of confirming the next 10 year funding term. Our other major partner is the Government of Canada. We are very fortunate that the new government in the spring announced its commitment to Harbourfront Centre – a five year, 25 million dollar funding commitment to us.”

The site includes several buildings – York Quay Centre, Premiere Dance Theatre, Harbourfront Centre Theatre, The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery and the Concert Stage – an amazing lakeside amphitheatre (open air theatre) that can hold well over 1,500 people. It also includes the pond, the marketplace and café – and the waterfront areas including marinas the boardwalk systems and the water slips themselves. Service Canada also operates a kiosk on the site.

“Generally all our rooms are multipurpose,” says Waddell. “So the Brigantine Room could be a literary reading one night and be a classroom the next day. And I think that’s true to say of all our venues here – with the exception of The Power Plant and York Quay Gallery – which are dedicated to contemporary art exhibitions.”

Programming at the venues runs anywhere to 40 to 60 per cent produced or co-produced by the Centre itself. Many of those events are produced with the help of grants. Waddell says, “Canadian Heritage contributes operating grants as well as Ontario Arts Council. Some specific projects receive money from the Toronto Arts Council. And we have a number of other funding bodies like the consulates. The Mexican consulate helped produce Ritmo y Color in July plus the Day of the Dead programme at the end of October. With our New World Stage, we very much appreciate the foreign consulates that help through travel assistance, accommodations and grants.

“We go out to seek cultural communities with which to work. A good example is “Under the Azure Dome” which worked with the Persian Community. They struck up an advisory board and we struck up an advisory team – and we came together to produce the festival. And we’re always seeking opportunities for new communities to work with within the city.

Outside groups renting their theatres often receive non-profit rates – subsidized rates for dance and theatre companies coming into the venues. “Our venues in the York Quay Centre, the Premiere Dance Theatre – and the Harbourfront Centre Theatre are also available to arts and cultural or even commercial corporations who want to do their Annual General Meetings here.

Children and Youth Programs

“Our Summer Camp project is one of the largest day camps in Canada,” says Waddell, “with 1200 kids a day on site. It runs Monday through Friday for 8 weeks over the summer and ranges from recreation through to arts and culture. Campers register in a one or two week camp. This past summer, there was a book club camp, trapeze and circus art camps, sailing and theatre camps. The recreational activities can be common – at the start and end of the day, but then they go to a specific camp where they are dealing with creative arts. Fees for the summer camps vary upwards from $160 to $450 – all inclusive, so there are varying packages that could include meals and bussing to the site.

“The rest of the year, they have a school visits program – a program that visiting schools from the GTA boards of education can access. Like the camps, each has a focus, which can range from visual arts to exploring the tunnels in the business district. These are usually one day experiences.

Waddell says, “We ask the artists of the companies in our theatre if they’d be interested in putting on school workshops. We have a core group of teachers on staff that work with the visiting artists to offer the workshops.”

Adult Programs

Last year we introduced a great program that keeps expanding called Learning for Living – courses & workshops for adults. They span from working with a culinary chef preparing Thanksgiving dinner, to book clubs, to experiencing a dance class yourself just like the students do.

Winter Offerings

The largest artificial outdoor rink in the GTA is at Harbourfront Centre. It operates, weather permitting, from approximately November 20th through to March 1st. Recreational skating is offered 7 days a week from 10 am to 10 pm, with on-site skate rentals and indoor change rooms. Hutchinson says, “We specialize in adult learn-to-skate. We have a lot of adults who have never skated in their lives who are learning to skate.”

As for cultural events during the winter, he explains, “Most of our winter events are indoors and many of them are free. Some dance performances have a ticket price, but 75% of our events are free, even during the winter. Festivals like our Thanksgiving festival – our Day of the Dead festival – they’re all free. Our community events tend to be free.”

Getting Involved

Harbourfront Centre has a volunteer program that uses over 2,000 volunteers per year. To get more information, contact their volunteer coordinator at 416-952-3625 or visit their website www.harbourfrontcentre.com.

When asked if this was a good place for foreign artists to get in touch with specific arts and ethnic communities, Hutchinson responded, “We work with over 450 community groups. We are very happy to put people in touch with the contacts we have. It’s a good starting point for someone looking for ways to get involved with the arts community. Obviously I would first direct someone to a community group of their own established community.”

Waddell adds, “The thing that I always appreciate is the artists and mentors that are on-site or other organizations and participants that are all engaging the public, so that someone could go into a gallery, talk to the attendant and get information that way. We quite often have exhibit openings – where you can engage with the artists there. People are always willing to engage.”

Hutchinson concludes, “You can come down, look around and see a great mix of people here. It gives you a degree of comfort to see how they’re all comfortable here. We try to promote ourselves a safe place to explore culture and cultures.”

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