Sustaining community jams

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Eric Rumble, Night\Shift founder and festival director

On Sunday afternoon, I read the farewell for Downtown Kitchener cultural mashup event: Night\Shift. My friend, Eric Rumble, N\S founder and festival director, offered a familiar explanation, one with which I can sympathize. Sustaining community events on a volunteer basis is a metric tonne of work, that on a longer timeline is difficult to reconcile with day jobs, family commitments, personal projects and occasionally getting a day to just chill.

Before sharing a few thoughts of my own on this, I’ll give you a TL;DR:

1. Big thanks to Eric and crew for 5(!) years of hard work and new experiences.
2. If you like the work: support the work. On-now/upcoming events/efforts: Irish Real Life Festival, Maker Expo, CAFKA18Art$Pay, Summer Lights Festival and a whole lot more. Every jam I’ve ever worked on here in WR has needed: you to participate, you to promote, you to help organize and you to help fund. If you like the work: support the work.

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Night\Shift 2013 – “Show Us Yer Bike Face” installation by Darin White and Joe Martz 

The news about Night\Shift comes close on the heels of the end (or uncertain future) of Cambridge Arts Fest, Cambridge International Street Art Fest and FLASH Photography Show. Over the past 9 years that I’ve been paying attention, I’ve seen our cultural fortunes rise and fall like a sine wave. It gets me pondering what changes might make it easier for us to start, grow and sustain cultural events as a community…

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Night\Shift 2016 – Dylan Reibling’s installation “24 Hour Dolly”

I’ve certainly got more questions than answers around what support could be offered to event organizers. Everyone who has organized any large community event will have their bag of observations, too.

I helped start up, from scratch, Maker Expo, FLASH Photography Show, SoOnCon and a bunch of smaller workshops associated with kwartzlab. Beyond that experience, I’ve chipped in photo essays here on makebright over the years for great events and orgs like The Jazz Room, The Grand Porch Party, BOX Art Show & Sale and Art Allies. That’s given me a broader perspective on cultural startup efforts and their challenges. I’ve done field trips to Hamilton’s SuperCrawl, Toronto’s Maker Festival and Maker Faire in California. Those trips showed me that cultural startup challenges are common across cities and countries. In general, Waterloo Region is just big enough and just small enough to be a perfect Petri dish in which to grow culture (ahem).

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In no particular order and representing only my thoughts and *not* any organization or event, here is some of the legwork required to get something cultural happening and to keep it going. If we can make any of these items easier in WR, then we improve our ability to sustain and extend cool happenings here.

Getting money – this is a pivotal one, obviously. I’ve worked in groups where nobody had experience asking for money for community events, including me. There are lots of ideas, but often no practical connections or experience. You’ll hear suggestions to solicit: the “City” or “Cities”, the “Region”, the KWCF, the WR Arts Fund, WR Tourism, “tech companies”, the Trillium Foundation, the BIA, crowdfunding and on the list goes. Putting it into practice is much harder. You need to develop a budget, a sponsorship rewards model, strategize who to target and what their values and motivations are, qualify your event against funder criteria, customize pitches, identify contacts, set up meetings, pitch or apply, follow up, get an actual cheque,… all for each potential funder. And if you actually get the money, you need to deliver on your promises to each funder, help them get the most out of the experience and report back to them on investment impact in the post-event assessment. Most often this is carried by volunteers, racking up a lot of hours nights and weekends. I believe the single best way to sustain cultural events is to figure out how to pay organizers.

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Night\Shift 2014 – nik harron’s giant Pong game in Goudie’s Lane

Getting air time – when you’re brand new, you know: sitting around somebody’s kitchen table making your event, almost nobody knows that you exist. Success in getting into the popular consciousness is highly dependent on the connectedness of your team. In a cruel irony, the better your event is known, the more help you get making it more broadly known. I’d like to offer a leaping high-five to the handful of people who have taken a chance and helped me raise new events above the waterline. You’re all champs.

Getting community engagement – to wit, getting people to attend. When it’s cold/hot/wet/windy. When tickets are $20. When parking isn’t great. When it’s on a Tuesday night. When it’s in Waterloo/Kitchener/Cambridge. When there is construction. When there are other events on the same weekend. When you don’t have a friend to go with you. I’m optimistic that we can develop a default of everyone leaving their sofas, trying new events and supporting existing ones.

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Night\Shift 2015 – the incredible Bernie Rohde with his infinity mirror (and I think Mike worked on this too)

Getting support for founders – these improbable, delightful events we create are virtually *willed* into existence by a founder or small group of founders. Given the amount of work and dearth of resources, the emergence of the new event may pleasantly surprise even its creators: “We did it!” On delivery of the event, the greatest compliment and most chilling question is: “When is the next one?” When all the post-event work is done, you can take a month off and then immediately begin planning the next one, because that’s how long it takes. This is a lot to carry for the founding team year over year and it is damned hard to add effective, skilled, dependable people to your core team of unpaid volunteers. Therein lies the critical work toward sustainability. Ideally, you bring on more horsepower, compartmentalize and redistribute the work and stay true to the vision. Hard to do.

Getting volunteers – this has worked out well, requiring a tonne of communication and coordination, but getting people to commit and show up to work an actual event has gone well. That’s not to say it’s easy: finding volunteers, training volunteers, ordering t-shirts and food for volunteers, scheduling volunteers and supporting volunteers. It’s a lot of work, but it’s something that has gone very well in my travels. The next time you’re at an event, high-five a volunteer for making it possible.

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Night\Shift 2016 – mega-meta-maker Brent Wettlaufer contributing to Trevor Waurechen’s giant comic strip, Mercury Cafe

Getting a venue, insurance, incorporated, a bank account, tables and chairs, signage, first aid, A/V equipment… – each event more or less requires a giant bag of goods and services to make it real. You try to find a venue you can afford, that is available, that will allow your event activity. Then you need to figure out who does what: let’s you in, hooks up power, takes out the garbage, delivers the floor plan, talks with the fire marshal, closes the street. If you ever wanted to test your commitment to an event, talk with an insurance agent. It’s unnerving to unravel the various liabilities of everything happening at your event. Even before game day you’ll want Directors and Officers Liability Insurance for your decision makers. If you want a bank account, you need to be a legal entity, which is to say you need to incorporate. Here in Ontario, establishing a non-profit org requires a minimum of 3 directors, written articles of incorporation, regular meetings and financials, a Nuans name search and about $200 to register. Then there’s all the practical stuff like the right number of tables and chairs. Sounds so mundane, but if you’re short tables that can be a big problem. You also need to diligently manage and regularly communicate with your suppliers and service providers. And you need backup plans for mission critical stuff.

Getting coherent access to fragmented municipal government – in this regard, we’re at a bit of a disadvantage in Waterloo Region. I’m told this is improving. Every event I’ve worked on draws people from across the region, and figuring out a way to streamline corresponding support would be helpful.

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Night\Shift 2016 – Bernie Rohde and nik harron’s infinity hallway at 44 Gaukel

Getting things done – if you’re an event organizer, you already know all this stuff. You’re living it. And like me, you’ve probably been to a lot of cultural improvement/feedback/input meetups to share your experience and make suggestions around what would be helpful at street level. There has been a lot of earnest discussion and a number of written plans. I’m hopeful we can take elements of what we’ve talked about and start acting on those.

Getting together – I’ve probably joked with every event organizer I know that we should have a common support group, because we all face similar stresses and demands. Informally, people like Eric Rumble have generously shared their domain experience and that’s proven to be a big help to events I’ve worked on. Likewise with the great Toronto Maker Festival crew.  Of course, the challenge is that adding more meetups for already busy event organizers really must net out positive to be feasible.

Editing this piece, it feels like I’m stating the obvious, but I wanted to write something as an expression of appreciation and thanks for Night\Shift and all the events we’ve enjoyed in Waterloo Region. Thank you.


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3 Responses to Sustaining community jams

  1. A thoughtful and comprehensive review of community engagement. Events just don’t happen, they are planned and coordinated; a herculean task.

  2. Tony Reinhart says:

    Great insights, Darin. Thanks for this and for all you do to sustain interest and enthusiasm for arts and culture in this region.

  3. Tenille Bonoguore says:

    It takes a huge amount of sweat and heart to make community events — and it’s awfully hard to step away. A lot of people just don’t see — and therefore, don’t understand — how consuming it can be to organize, run, and sustain community+art events. (After the first Grand Porch Party, people asked me if we could do it every *week* in the summer.)
    Kudos to Eric and the team for five years of art/exploration in DTK. Hopefully this plants a seed for others to try something new — and hopefully we find ways to address the very real points you’ve raised here, Darin, and provide the support that event organizers deserve.

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