Was Edmonton’s Winter Light 2009 a success?

Edmonton’s first Winter Light festival wrapped up on Saturday evening in Churchill Square with an event called Illuminations, described as a “final celebration of winter spirit”. I was there to take in the sights and sounds, just as I was on January 8th when Winter Light began its ten week celebration of winter. I found Illuminations enjoyable enough. I bought a Winter Light toque and filled my mug with hot chocolate (though it was more like warm chocolate and they were providing disposable cups, a step backward from the opening ceremonies). We wandered around looking at the displays, soaking up a bit of heat at each of the fire pits. We took some photos.

Winter Light: IlluminationsSharon & Mack

Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing.

I think that sentiment might apply to Winter Light 2009 as a whole. It wasn’t an outright failure, but I’m not sure it was the major success that organizer Pamela Anthony and her team were hoping for. She described the event to The Journal as “an extremely successful research project.” Successful enough for another year?

That remains to be seen. The city spent $750,000 on the festival this year. Total attendance is estimated at between 50,000 and 80,000 people, plus another 150,000 who attended the shared events such as Ice on Whyte (events which would have happened anyway). In comparison, the annual Heritage Festival costs about $500,000 to run and attracts well over 300,000 people. In 2006, the Edmonton International Fringe Festival had expenses of $1,552,797 (pdf – excluding artist ticket revenue) and total site attendance of more than 500,000 people.

Perhaps those comparisons aren’t fair. A warm, sunny day in August is a much easier sell than snow and temperatures well below freezing in February or March. So was Winter Light successful as a winter festival? The jury’s still out on that one too. Here’s what Edmonton Sun columnist Graham Hicks said on Friday:

Google "Harbin Winter Festival Pictures" to see what’s possible. This shouldn’t be so difficult. We have friends. Edmonton is twinned with Harbin and Alberta with Japan’s Hokkaido province, where Sapporo is located.

He felt the inaugural festival failed to “capture the public imagination” and was unable to move beyond the weather. I certainly didn’t hear many people talking about Winter Light in a “must attend” sort of way. And I still think that Illuminate Yaletown made better use of light than Illuminations. Bottom line: there’s definitely room for improvement.

City Council will review a report from the Winter Light organizers later this spring. Final attendance figures will no doubt be important in determining whether or not Winter Light happens again next year, but Mayor Mandel seems keen to support it anyway: “We can’t forget the idea that our job is to make sure that citizens have opportunity…this is a way for people in the wintertime to get out and enjoy our city.”

I still think the concept is a great one, and I agree that there’s lots of potential for winter tourism. My guess is that Winter Light will have to be much improved in 2010 to become a permanent fixture on Edmonton’s festival calendar, however.

What did you think of Winter Light 2009?

6 thoughts on “Was Edmonton’s Winter Light 2009 a success?

  1. I hope that Winter Light evolves into something greater and more noteworthy (though, I have no idea as to what that entails). The 2009 festival was one that I rarely heard discussed outside of the media, and after reading about each of the events that were a part of the festival, I felt compelled to attend absolutely none of them.

    I did attend Ice on Whyte, but that had nothing to do with the fact that it was a part of Winter Light. Given that it existed before Winter Light was ever conceived, it’s hard to consider it a part of the festival, even though it did fall under the “umbrella” that was Winter Light 2009.

    In order to be a success and continue into 2010 and beyond, Winter Light has to take a new direction and become something that people can’t imagine missing. I don’t know what that is just yet, but I’ll know it if and when I see it.

  2. I agree with Mack and Adam. I think it’s a great concept that will take a few years before there is a ‘following’.

    With this many months of winter we may as well embrace and enjoy it. Quebec Winter Carnival look-out?

  3. The problem with Winter Light was that it tried to be huge in its first year, and the costs reflect that. Heritage and the Fringe both started as small festivals and then grew with popularity. The city should have gauged support more accurately and then funded accordingly.

    After all, look at how much Jasper’s winter festival achieves for its cost (partly on the strength of “events that would have happened anyway”)

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