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Better not bigger

Chris Hunsley
Northern News Services

Inuvik (July 25/05) - Less can be more, as the Great Northern Arts Festival proved during its 17th anniversary.

With a deliberately smaller line-up of artists, the July 15-24 festival has been able to dig itself out of financial difficulties and focus on improvements, while still exhibiting high quality art work and drawing droves of tourists to Inuvik.

"It was basically a matter of survival," said Danae Tilley, festival vice-chair.

At one point it even looked as though what's known as the premier arts festival in the North might have to be cancelled, she said. However, with the help and support of the town and dozens of festival sponsors, the Great Northern Arts Society, which runs the festival, decided to move ahead with an emphasis on capacity-building and long-term strategizing.

"We should have a marketing plan in place by September that will give us almost a full year to plan," said Tilley, explaining that in the past the festival was organized over shorter time periods, sometimes as little as three month.

Although opening day sales of $44,000 were down one third from last year's record-setting $66,000 take, the festival also invited only 65 artists, about 40 per cent fewer than in 2004.

As the week progressed, however, sales figures began to come back in line.

"Hopefully by the weekend the sales should be up," said sales manager Karen Balanuik, who explained the same trend occurred this year as in the past, where daily sales evened out to about one-third of the opening day.

Forest fires along the Dempster Highway during opening weekend and the high price of fuel were blamed for keeping tourists away from Inuvik and the festival.

Between July 11 and 16, 393 tourists visited Inuvik, compared to 444 last year.

Figures were not available for the rest of the festival, however, tourism and development officer Judith Venaas said large groups were expected later in the week.

Travellers from all over the continent and from as far away as Italy and Switzerland had visited the festival as of Thursday.

First time

"I love it here. I'm meeting new people and getting new inspiration," said Caroline Blechert, a beader from Yellowknife who exhibited for the first time at a festival.

The recent high school graduate explained that, due to the festival's open concept work area, where the public and artists alike can interact, she became less nervous and looks forward to returning next year.

"It's good because it helped me get over my shyness," she said.

The tons of stunning sculptures, walls hung with hundreds of striking canvasses, traditional clothing and cultural curiosities were not all this festival was about.

Daily workshops taught techniques from jewelry making to soapstone carving to silk scarf painting, allowing artists and visitors to get in on the action.

At a cost of $20-$100 per session, depending on the materials required, those who couldn't afford to buy finished pieces could simply create their own.

"It looked fun and I wanted to learn," said 10-year-old Natasha Staples as she carefully created designs on a silk scarf for the first time.

Nightly jams, drum and square dances, a fashion show, a movie premier and a show stopping concert Thursday by Juno award winner Leela Gilday of Yellowknife and her band kept the Midnight Sun Recreation Centre hopping from morning until well into the evening.

"Everything looks great," said Nicolina Minakis of Inuvik.

"I just think it's improved so much over the years. All the artwork is getting better and better."

Describing it as an artistic renaissance in the North, artists and visitors alike commented on how the festival's mandate to feature Northern art while providing an educational component was helping to evolve the quality of the art available at the festival each year.

"I don't think people need to fear there won't be another festival," said Christina Wilsdon, the festival co-ordinator, who plans to mentor her replacement and help work towards another great festival next year.

"This festival will go places and achieve phenomenal things," she said.