The Chieftains in Charlottetown: Is Borrowing Public Spaces Okay?

On July 17, The Chieftains are performing in Charlottetown, produced by the Confederation Centre of the Arts, on something called the “Outdoor Plaza — ATV Mainstage.” I had the good fortune to run into Confederation Centre CEO David Mackenzie this morning here in Mavor’s and we had a good chat about the concert.

The “Outdoor Plaza — ATV Mainstage,” it turns out, covers a large swath of Charlottetown’s downtown core, up and down Queen Street and along Grafton. The tentative plan is to erect a fence around this area, closing off the affected streets, and limiting access to the area to ticket holders during the late afternoon and evening. Tickets are $28 before July 7 and $35 after that. The stage itself is to be mounted in front of the CIBC bank building, with the audience set out onto the street and the Centre’s plaza.

I mentioned some misgivings about putting a chunk of downtown Charlottetown behind a “pay wall” — taking public space out of the public realm and making it only accessible to people who can afford to pay for access (and offering it up to ATV to wrap their brand around). This has always been my problem with the Festival of Lights on the waterfront: setting aside their acoustic assault on the neighbourhood, for almost two weeks they take our local public park out of commission.

To his credit, David took my concerns seriously, and we had a good talk around how the Centre might work to mitigate the problems the concert is going to create for downtown residents. I suggested, for example, that a simple note from David explaining the concert details, the rationale for holding it, and so on, dropped in the mailbox of residents in the Centre’s neighbourhood might be a good idea.

Now I must admit that I’m a lot less worried about this concert than I am about the “insert hit rock band of the moment” concerts on the waterfront; that’s a simple, entirely subjective aesthetic judgement. I like The Chieftains and I think it’s a good idea to have them come to Charlottetown. And I know that to afford that, the Centre needs a big audience, the kind of audience they can’t shoehorn into the main stage. And I think that having art happen outside, in public view, is a good idea. I think the Centre should bust out of its walls more often.

At the same time, I think carving out a large important chunk of public space — space we’ve all paid, with our tax dollars, to construct and maintain — and saying to a family of four that they need to come up with $112 to participate in the cultural life of that public space is problematic. It doesn’t feel right.

Of course public spaces are set aside for private events all the time — the Winnipeg Folk Festival, for example, takes over Birds Hill Provincial Park. The New Bedford Summerfest takes over their entire downtown. You could argue that the Confederation Centre itself is a piece of public infrastructure with a pay wall around it — we’ve all got to pay to go inside and see Anne of Green Gables.

So, in other words, I come down on both sides of this issue. The Centre is talking about the concert internally this week, and going forward to City Council shortly. If you’ve got thoughts on the issues, I’d love to hear them (you can add comments to this post), and I’m sure David would value them as well.


Johnny Rukavina's picture
Johnny Rukavina on June 16, 2005 - 14:28 Permalink

Yes, borrowing public spaces is ok. Its going to be a fun event. Its one thing to be a grumpy old man complaining about “Staind” and “Finger 11”, but you’ve moved into a whole new stratosphere by complaining about the Chieftains.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on June 16, 2005 - 14:30 Permalink

I’m not complaining about The Chieftains. I’m trying to inspire public debate about how we use public spaces.

Johnny Rukavina's picture
Johnny Rukavina on June 16, 2005 - 14:34 Permalink

I know you’re trying to inspire debate about public spaces silly, I was just yankin’ your chain.

Rusty's picture
Rusty on June 16, 2005 - 15:08 Permalink

Charlottetown needs to find or create an outdoor amphitheatre or a site that is easily convertible to an outdoor amphitheatre other than Confederation Landing or blocking off downtown streets. The former Experimental Farm property would be ideal.

Its like the Confederation Bridge: Sure, its neat to have marathons and charity walkathons on the Confederation Bridge, but does it make sense for the rest of the community to block off the bridge for 4-6 hours to do it?

Nils's picture
Nils on June 16, 2005 - 16:57 Permalink

OK, without comment on the advisability of planning a weather-dependent event in early July on the Island …

One of the factors involved in this is “inconvenience to the vast majority of the public which has no interest in the activity in question”. The example you give of the WFF taking over Bird’s Hill Park doesn’t really relate here, because BHP is well outside any populated area of the city, really a 20 minute drive from the city itself, and nobody goes there without having the park as a specific destination. You don’t just happen upon it, is what I’m saying. In Island terms, think Fort Amherst/Port La Joie or Strathgartney Provincial park. So, when the WFF takes the park over, nobody is inconvenienced.

In this case, there will be some inconvenience, but the question is “Does the activity’s inherent merit outweigh the inconvenience?” Subjective question — I love the Chieftains, so I assign merit to that concert that I’m not generous enough to give to some of the music likely to eminate from Confederation Landing on the July long weekend. My kids would probably flop in the other direction.

I’m with Rusty in saying there needs to be a large-scale event venue — some sort of outdoor bowl — for things like this. Good luck with turning the Experimental Farm into anything other than an “organic food and anti-pesticide healing crystal festival site”, but .. somewhere …

oliver's picture
oliver on June 16, 2005 - 18:11 Permalink

Since it belongs to everybody it’s fine if everybody agrees and perhaps—so long as nobody’s fundamental human rights are affected—fine even if only a majority agrees. Perhaps a way to mitigate the inconvenience needs to be sought for those who are unduly put out. If elections weren’t so expensive each case ought to be voted on. Maybe with that election software and a few kiosks around town….

I liked Nils’ example of the bridge. I don’t know if the bridge qualifies, but clearly there are cases where no amount of coolness or aesthetic virtue will offset inconvenience. It might be really cool to run chocolate milk through the water system and might even attract tourists from all over, but I think I can predict which way the vote would go on that one.

steve's picture
steve on June 16, 2005 - 22:59 Permalink

One of the things I like about Montreal is that the city seems willing and eager to muck up traffic completely every summer to comandeer streets and turn them into public festival spaces. When I lived in Toronto I don’t ever recall a downtown street being closed for an event. I think it adds to the richness and vitality of a city when the streets and public spaces themselves become part of the event. In Montreal this works to great effect. Last year during the jazzfest they ahd a combination musical/circus spectacle right downtown that 100,000 people attended. There were acrobats rapelling off highrise towers. It was amazing.

I suppose there are two big differences: the downtown festival spaces in Montreal are not primarily residential, and the events are mostly free. This means fewer people are annoyed and people who live in the city can easily participate with no economic constraints.

Alot of tourists go to these things, but alot of locals go too. I felt like more of a Montrealer when I went and watched a free outdoor night screen showing of “North By Northwest” at the film festival two years ago, or when I and 150,000 others took in the free Ladysmith Black Mazambo concert last summer.

Stuff like this can be a big pain in the ass, but it can also promote a kind of unique common shared experience that is exciting.

Charles's picture
Charles on June 17, 2005 - 00:48 Permalink

I’ve got to disagree with you on this one Peter, and not just because I’ve got absolutely no interest in a Chieften’s concert. Closing down one end of downtown for a commercial concert is a bad idea. I personally see this as much more inconvenient than some noise from a waterfront concert, especially if it includes the Queen street parkade.

Johnny Rukavina's picture
Johnny Rukavina on June 17, 2005 - 13:04 Permalink

I really don’t understand the fuss about this. Yes, there might be some detours and mild inconveniences for downtown residents (of which I am one) on a sleepy Sunday night in Charlottetown, but its for a cultural event. This is a good thing. And I don’t see why it matters that it is a “commercial concert”. All concerts, from the Winnipeg Folk Festival to Live 8 to the free events in Montreal, have corporate sponsors. It costs money to put on a concert. I admire the Confed Centre folks for the boldness of their scheme.

steve's picture
steve on June 17, 2005 - 13:56 Permalink

More importantly…how is the imminent shutdown of Rainbow Valley going over on the island?

Rob L.'s picture
Rob L. on June 17, 2005 - 15:34 Permalink

I’ve also witnessed (I say witnessed, because I did not stick around to watch) the outdoor film screenings at Place-Des-Arts in Montreal. It was incredible to stroll down St. Catherine’s St. at dusk and suddenly notice to my left that hundreds of people were sitting in silence watching a film.
I’ve always thought this would be a good idea for the Confed Centre. Perhaps they could team up with City Cinema or someone (and some sponsors, of course) to show films in the small “ampitheatre” between Province House and Memorial Hall.