Sound Seekers

SOUND SEEKERS: Behind the Scenes at Arb, part one

Sound Seekers by Fateema Sayani is published weekly at Read Fateema Sayani’s culture column in Ottawa Magazine and follow her on Twitter @fateemasayani

Behind the Scenes at Arboretum Fest: Part One

Thoughts on Ottawa’s Cultural Future with Fest Founder Rolf Klausener

Months before the first annual festival launched last year, musicians and chef-folk around town were talking about “Rolf’s food and music thing,” which has since become the Arboretum Arts Festival, a small-scale party that celebrates indie rock and eating well while outside.

Klausener, 37, long-time Ottawa musician who toured widely with his band The Acorn, is the festival’s founder and, along with manager Stefanie Power, puts together a line-up of cool, contemporary Canadian indie rock acts. This year’s Arboretum Arts Festival runs August 16-17 in Waller Park, the grassy area behind Arts Court, as well as in the nearby SAW Courtyard and at St. Alban’s Church. Headliners include Owen Pallett, Jim Bryson, Doldrums, Diana, and Holy Fuck along with Mike Feuerstack, NDMA, and Roberta Bondar. Find the full line-up here.

Rolf Klausener plays around on a ukulele. Photo by Pat Bolduc.

Before the festival begins, SOUND SEEKERS met with Klausener to talk about the behind-the-scenes details of festivals and cultural life in Ottawa. Here is part one of two of quotes and quips about the festival.

The More We Get Together … Together ….
“It’s clear to anyone who works in the cultural centre, that Ottawa is super vibrant, and super-connected right now. Everyone is supporting each other and it’s really cool. I see a punk band retweeting a café, or you have restaurants advertising for other restaurants in their restaurant. That interconnectedness means that people have clued in that if we just do things together, we can actually get more things done and pool these micro-niches and develop them into this bigger cultural niche.”

The Whole Point of It
“In developing the festival, we realized this is what it has to be — this city-wide high five. This is the stuff that we feel is very relevant and challenging. I feel like we’re trying to encapsulate the cultural explosion in the city.”

Last year's innaugural Arboretum Festival drew a great crowd — and boasted three Polaris Prize nominees.

Programming Back-Pat
“Last year, we had three Polaris nominees. This year we have Owen Pallet who’s won the Polaris Prize and he’s produced albums for Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear. Diana is going to be a big band. I had my ear to the ground on them because their manager is my manager as well. They got signed to Jagjaguwar, the same label as Bon Iver.”

“When we started, it was because of a very private discussion I think a lot of people were probably having in the city that sounded a bit like, ‘Ottawa fucking sucks.’ A lot of the ideas we had for the festival, I feel, have become part of a public discussion in the city.”

“There’s such a drive around the city’s cultural growth right now with the restaurants going the way that they are and all the attention on the city’s arts and culture. I feel like we’re essentially a magnifying glass  — at least we hope to be for the greater public in the city to kind of say, ‘This is all the emerging art and culture happening in the city and we’re offering it to you in one little package.’ Ideally it’s something that people are interested in. They might not know everything that’s happening at the festival, but it’s the idea that we’ve done all the work and all the research and people can come and basically consume what we think is basically the most exciting art and culture in the city — hopefully that’s the part that resonates with people.”

Carleton architecture graduate Ann Le surveys the festival site before heading to the workshop to construct the festival’s benches and installations.

Hillside Community Festival Envy
“What’s exciting about the festival is that when we thought of it, there really wasn’t anything like it in the city. It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s think of something that doesn’t exist and do it.’ It was more like, ‘Man I really wish there was a small, boutique music festival in the city that was super locally centred.’ You go to Hillside and the whole food court is all local restaurants and food purveyors and vendors from around Guelph and Toronto — and they’re all amazing. That was my first experience with that 13 years ago and it changed my life. Then I’d come here, and I’d be like what? It’s just Pizza Pizza and the people who could afford to pay a $2,000 vendor fee to be at the Folk Fest.”

The Talent Budget
“Our budget is so small, it’s laughable. What is it? I don’t think I should tell you. Our manager wouldn’t like it if I did.”

“We have way more upfront funding this year (from the City of Ottawa, Ontario Arts Council, and FACTOR grants) than we had last year, which is insane. It’s so cool.”

Managing director Stefanie Power, left, and creative director Rolf Klausener at their home office space used for planning the Arboretum festival.

Workin’ It
“The festival is completely volunteer-run. The only people we hire are the contractors that we couldn’t do the festival without: toilets, fencing, staging, tech, security, and volunteer management. Everything else we do on our own.”

“The whole sponsorship and granting model is a really precarious one. I have been working part-time at SAW Video for the last couple of years. It’s been great because I’ve actually gotten to see how a not-for-profit works and I’ve had some insight into it. I find it kind of terrifying, because I don’t feel like it’s sustainable. What happens if that granting money just disappears? What happens if the conservative government just decides to make major cuts to the arts? We’re seeing that actually. A lot of organizations are feeling that pinch. They’re not getting the operating grants they’re used to getting.”

Other Streams of Income
“I am constantly racking my brains to figure out other ways to privately fund the festival, whether it’s working with a private developer who really has the same ethos about the city’s cultural growth or whether it’s investing into a business that can help funnel cash into the festival. Like, can we open a bar and can that bar help support the festival? At the same time, I feel like it’s the government’s responsibility to fund the arts. If they’re funding the military, if they’re funding healthcare, you know culture is obviously intrinsic to human nature and to our happiness. It’s funny; I play both sides of that coin. The more I see how that granting process works, the less I believe in it. At the same time, I feel like it’s the government’s responsibility to grant the arts.”

The Break Even
“We need to do really well. We need to have close to a sell-out. In my mind, it doesn’t seem hard because 800 people will spend $28.95 to go see Broken Social Scene — and it’s like we have 35 really great artists and seven of the best restaurants in town and it’s 40 bucks for the whole weekend. I feel like that’s pretty reasonable.”

What’s the Sell Out Number?
“A thousand people, then on top of that we have tickets reserved for media, VIPs, and 150 volunteers.”

OttCity Duality
“The city of Ottawa has this Jekyll and Hyde thing going on. There are people who live and work in the arts and culture sector and then there’s everyone who works in the government and on the Hill and I barely ever cross into that world, except when I’m trying to advertise to them to get them to come to my festival.”

Rain, Rain, Go Away
“Ottawa is a really fickle music market. It starts to rain and people run home, hide, and curl up under the covers. It doesn’t seem to be a very robust concert-going audience. A lot of people stuck it out for Black Keys [at Bluesfest; in the rain], but I wonder if people will stick it out for an emerging artist.”

Festival Wish List (A Campsite)
“I love camping festivals. I’ve played them tonnes in my life. They’re immersive.”

Immersive … Meaning Drunk and Muddy?
“They’re immersive socially, because you end up seeing the same people again and again. It’s like you’ve moved to another city for a weekend. It’s like having a little vacation in a way in a weird town. It’s really transformative.”

Arboretum Thoughts, 2/2, will appear next week at