Metropolis: A Tough Sell

At the formal reveal of Metropolis back in October 2011, it was clear that this new festival was an ambitious one. Their list of sponsors was long, but necessary given the $1.2 million dollar price tag, with only $215,000 of that amount being covered by civic funds.

Metropolis

Events Edmonton General Manager Giuseppe Albi explains his vision

At the time, Events Edmonton revealed mock-ups of the six pavilions they had planned, snow-white structures stemming from the snow-covered Square. These heated tents would encourage the public to venture out into the cold every weekend from the end of December to mid-February to enjoy programs regardless of the weather. It sounded like Metropolis would have a little bit of everything – a children’s tent, pub, food services, information technology, media – plus a space where the community would have a chance to make their mark on the festival. But what would it look like in reality? Would Edmontonians embrace this new winter event?

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Scaffolding

First Impressions

Metropolis had its official debut on New Year’s Eve, one of the busiest days in the downtown Edmonton calendar. Not a bad way to guarantee loads of foot traffic to a new event, but on the downside, we found that the pavilions (now down to four) weren’t able to comfortably accommodate the large crowds. As a result, we felt a little like cattle, being herded in lines from one tent to the next, barely able to take in any of the displays.

That said, the first show in the community pavilion was less than inspiring – a collection of art that could have been mistaken for a holiday gift market.

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Night of Artists on December 31

The Taste of Winter pavilion was unfortunately no better. Although most of the restaurants present were independent establishments, with the sheer numbers crowding the aisles, perusing the options and indulging in a meal seemed more like chores than leisurely activities.

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Taste of Winter on December 31

Mack and I knew that it wasn’t quite fair to judge the festival on first impressions alone, especially on a day that featured abnormally large crowds. So we made sure to visit periodically over the next seven weekends to see what else Metropolis would have to offer.

Programming

Without a doubt, the biggest criticism of Metropolis has been its lack of programming. Metropolis organizers appeared to rely heavily on partners to program both activity-based children’s and community pavilions, without seeming to provide them with much support.

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Children’s pavilion on February 18

For Metropolis to have attracted its desired attendance of over 30,000 visitors every weekend, the programs needed to be interesting and unique. However, the vast majority of activities in the community pavilion had been duplicated elsewhere. The best example of this was the Chinese New Year weekend, where performers shuttled between a stage inside Edmonton City Centre and a smaller one that had been set up in the pavilion on the same afternoon.

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Community pavilion on January 21

I can only imagine how difficult it would have been for the partners to have been asked to program an unfamiliar space (particularly challenging for the artists’ collective that first weekend). On the bright side, as the weeks progressed, it seemed that groups were learning how to best use the scaffolding to their advantage.

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Scaffolding makes decorating easier

In the end, the biggest hurdle was the pavilion itself – besides the raw, industrial interior, the space was simply an empty hall indistinguishable from a community league, theatre lobby, classroom or any other venue in need of animation.

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Handmade Mafia on February 18

The only group that really utilized the potential of the raw space was Firefly Theatre. Aerial specialists, their experimental show Sky Life was reminiscent of last year’s Illuminations with Circus Orange. The audience was asked to move around the tent with the performers in a mostly wordless show, with an interpretation of the ugly duckling fable told through movement and music.

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Sky Life

The scaffolding became part of the sky in which personified stars danced and twirled, while the lights helped define the stage for the circus performers.

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Acrobats

Metropolis was lucky to have them; we heard that Firefly had to turn people away because the shows were so popular. It was unfortunate in many respects that there were only five performances of Sky Life given it was really the only program that highlighted what Metropolis could be.

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Stilt walkers

Metropolis organizers admitted that developing adequate programming would be their priority should the festival continue. Although I agree, I think there are other things that Metropolis could improve upon as well.

Taste of Winter

Although the Taste of Edmonton is far from my favourite festival (for a multitude of reasons), there is no doubt it is a summer tradition for many. So a Taste of Winter seemed like a good idea in principle, trying to build on the familiarity and recognition of a seasoned event.

As mentioned, the first impressions on New Year’s Eve weren’t positive, with attendees packed in like sardines. But even worse was the bleak reality of the following weeks – the crowds vendors had been promised just didn’t materialize.

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Taste of Winter on January 7

This was clear the Saturday night we had dinner there – at 7pm, several of the vendors had already shut down for the night, because not a single customer had passed through the doors in the two hours prior. The chicken-egg argument stands – without vendors open for business, would patrons visit? But without customers, how could vendors survive?

Molly's Eats

The bacon mac and cheese from Molly’s Eats – delicious!

I wouldn’t disagree that Taste of Winter was a good opportunity for food trucks like Molly’s Eats and Eva Sweet to set up shop in the off-season. But the pavilion was essentially just a tented food court, and with a few exceptions, like the programming, there was nothing unique about the food.

Coordination with Ongoing Events

Manning the Downtown Edmonton Community League membership table at the City Market one Saturday in January, we ended up being the de facto information booth because we were situated at the entrance of City Hall. Quite a few people asked us what the hours of Metropolis were – one would only assume that they would try to capture the potential foot traffic from market shoppers, right?

That wasn’t the case – on Saturdays, when the market begins at 10am, Metropolis didn’t open its doors until noon.

Use of Outdoor Space

For a winter festival, Metropolis really didn’t make use of the space surrounding the pavilions. I suppose it wasn’t really their focus, given their already severe lack of programming inside the tents, but it would have better connected the pavilions together, and more importantly, give life to the area.

With visitors shuttered inside the opaque pavilions, a passerby would assume Churchill Square was void of activity. Even small things would have made a difference – skaters performing in front of City Hall for instance (as they did at the kick-off for the WinterCity Symposium), or, as they started to do towards the end of the festival, placing carvers on the Square for the M.A.D.E. snow furniture competition, and inviting ice sculptors to carve right on-site.

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WinterCity skaters

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Carvers in action on February 11

What’s Next?

It’ll be interesting to see what organizers decide to do next, and what Metropolis might look like should the festival return again. Although I am glad Events Edmonton took a risk, I hope they are able to learn from this initial run and improve in the future.

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