Edmonton Visual Arts Festivals: A Comprehensive Review (Part 2) | By Tori McNish

This summer, I took on the rather exhaustive task of reviewing four major visual arts festivals in Edmonton: Nextfest, Found Festival, The Works Art & Design Festival, and Art Walk. My aim here is to employ a good old ‘compare and contrast’ in order to discuss the good, and the bad, of these cornerstones of Edmonton’s festival season.

My criteria for these reviews were simple: the festival had to be arts-centric, held in an alternative venue(s), and feature the work of local artists. I attended every exhibition I could, time permitting, in a one-day visit. This meant that some of the exhibitions included in The Works catalogue were immediately struck from the list, as they took place in more conventional gallery spaces (and arguably would have been on regardless of the festival).

When looking at the scope of visual arts at the festivals, Art Walk can’t be beat. Featuring the work of almost 400 local artists, Art Walk took over the streets of Old Strathcona for its 18th iteration this July 12-14th. Artists set up temporary outdoor studio and gallery spaces for the three-day weekend, selling their wares to diehard Art Walk fans and curious passersby’s alike. Art Walk has very few guidelines in their application process, with spaces open to anyone who meets them (meaning it is not juried).

The Works comes in a close second with over 25 exhibition sites, many of which showcase the work of multiple artists or artist groups. The Works is Edmonton’s longest-standing arts festival; this year’s festival (which took place June 20-July 2nd) was its 28th. The Works is national in reach, but features the work of many local and Alberta artists. Based loosely around a theme (this year’s was ‘human energy’), The Works often highlights new media work.

Nextfest, held largely in 124th Street and the area around The Roxy Theatre, is also in its 18th year. Known widely for its theatrical productions, Nextfest has grown into a truly multidisciplinary festival that also includes dance, music, film, and a venue for artists who are still in high school. This year the festival ran from June 6-16th, overlapping with The Works.

Last, but definitely not least, is the Found Festival presented by Common Ground Arts Society. Only in its second year, the festival, which took place June 28-30th, is situated in and around Old Strathcona. Focusing more on site-specific, performing arts, the Found Festival is growing to become more multidisciplinary in scope.

All four festivals have at least one thing in common – they predominantly feature the work of (emerging) local artists. Art Walk by far has the most, both because of its sheer size as well as its unjuried application. This means, of course, that the participants range from the amateur to the semi-professional, which was apparent when I walked down the Ave. This also means that there is something for everyone to enjoy (and at affordable price points, too). Stand out artists for me included Beth Pederson’s paintings of utilitarian objects on said-object-shaped canvases, Gerry Dotto’s text-based conceptual relief-prints, and Warren Knick’s cheeky pop-art that incorporates small crosscuts of wood.

Unfortunately, the range in media at Art Walk (or lack there of) was also something immediately apparent to me, which, after further inquiry, was a hindrance put in place by Art Walk’s own application guidelines. Art is only accepted in the following mediums (as listed on their website): oil paintings, acrylic paintings, watercolours, encaustics, drawings (graphite, charcoal, soft and chalk pastel, other dry media), sculpture (stone, clay, metal etc.), mosaic paintings, and printmaking (etching, silkscreen, lithography). Interestingly, many of these media are fairly traditional in nature. For a seemingly contemporary art festival, they are extremely limiting – which means that for an unjuried festival, it is somewhat exclusionary. This may be for street exhibition/ space concerns, but I trust in artists to come up with creative solutions, especially when it comes to showing and selling their own works. I would be interested to see what artists could come up with if Art Walk opened their registration next year to a more diverse range of media.

I was glad to see that Found Festival put their visual artist-participants, though few, up to this challenge. I saw Sara McKarney’s performance making Memory Documents at Remedy, where she used non-archival heat-sensitive fax paper to make rubbings of certain architectural details in the café, Michelle Martin’s installation that incorporated photo-transparencies, light, sound and audience participation at the C & E Railway Museum, and the Citizen’s Gallery at the Strathcona Branch of the Edmonton Public Library, where, instead of the usual book or label of artist statements, they had video interviews – and were also making (and exhibiting) Exquisite Corpse drawings. The great thing about Found Festival was that the artists were present during the “performances” of their work, meaning I actually got to speak with them. At the Citizen’s Gallery this presence was filled by the aforementioned video, as well as one of the curators, Morgan Melenka, who informed me that the Citizens Gallery was made up of works that people brought in and hung themselves (making it not dissimilar to Art Walk in its unjuried application). What the Gallery lacked in quality of work it made up for in intention – their aim was to give emerging artists a space to exhibit work outside of the ubiquitous café show, giving them a semi-professional and accessible place to do it. The only thing I could ask of Found Festival is for more visual art; with this year’s apparent increase in awareness and participation, that is a pretty safe bet for their triennial year.

Many of the works that I saw at Found Festival’s Citizens Gallery I had seen a few weeks before – at Nextfest. They too promote young artists with a range of exhibiting experience, with work ranging from the amateur to the novice. Each artist gets a solo or duo exhibit at one of the local businesses, some of which are more appropriate for showing work than others (some problems included limited space, lighting, and suitability). Several of the artist’s chosen for the festival (it is curated) exhibited work of excellent quality; many show promise. Standouts for me included Gabriel Molina’s and Ally Mac’s portrait-based work at Propaganda and The Roxy, respectively, and Vanessa Mastronardi’s architectural studies at mudHoney. Others just weren’t up to the standards I expected, especially in comparison to the aforementioned works. There is a subtle distinction between the amateur and the novice; Nextfest would do well to adhere to one category or the other (or make a clear distinction, as they do for their high school theatre), because, frankly, there is no fair comparison.

The Works, on the other hand, has a problem all its own. Being such a huge festival, The Works has the cache of taking over Churchill Square for thirteen days every June and July. The Square is the real centre of the festival, and, as such, I expected it to cater to what the festival is all about – art and design. This, sadly, is not the case. Though art is present at the Square (most obviously in the Big Tent, as it is so dubbed), it is dominated by a beer gardens with a live outdoor stage (mostly used for musical acts), an “artisan” market, and a line of deep-fried food stalls. From my observations, this is what most people were there for (I visited on the balmy evening of Canada Day). This is by no means a bad thing, but it felt like there was less focus on the art of the festival’s namesake. This sentiment was only perpetuated by the poor execution of the exhibits that were in place on the Square, most of which were (understandably) in tents. They served their purpose, but had a thrown together quality that didn’t show the works at their best. I know that The Works is transitory in nature, but many artists at the other outdoor arts festival I visited, Art Walk, had superior means of showing their work – and for a much shorter time (they are required to set up and take down every day of the festival!)

In contrast, the artworks themselves shown at The Works were unparalleled compared to all three of the other festivals – you just had to find it. Hung in many of the corporate towers downtown, the works, similar to those at Nextfest, were integrated into occupied, publicly accessible spaces. One of the exhibits that did this most successfully was the Everything On Sale! project, which utilized a vacant retail space in Manulife Place (there couldn’t have been a more appropriate venue for it). The exhibit, a great foray into curating by Olivia Chow and Brittney Roy, ruminated on ideas of consumerism (though not the most original idea, some of the works actually had me second-guessing whether they were leftover from the last tenant). Other notable exhibits included Justin Wayne Shaw’s satirical Western Horsemen: Economic Action Plan, Jill Stanton’s en“gross”ing What Good Are These?, and those ubiquitous glass-blowers, Calgary’s Bee Kingdom.

Critiques aside, each of these festivals should be applauded for their efforts in making art more accessible for more people in Edmonton, often promoting the work of local and/ or emerging artists (and businesses) while they do so. Hopefully, they stay (or become) mainstays in our so-called “festival season,” and get better and better every year.

Miss Part 1? Read my comments on the logistics of each festival here.

Photo by Tori McNish

Related posts: