Mayworks Keeps Growing: Annual, Cross-Canada Festival Brings Together Art and Labour

By Ballantyne, Morna | Canadian Dimension, May-June 2008 | Go to article overview

Mayworks Keeps Growing: Annual, Cross-Canada Festival Brings Together Art and Labour


Ballantyne, Morna, Canadian Dimension


Every year around this time advertising for Mayworks begins--but you won't likely see any sign of it on billboards, or even in newspapers. That's because Mayworks is a low-budget arts festival that depends mostly on word of mouth, notices to unions and flyers on telephone poles to bring out audiences. Each year the crowd gets bigger, as does the program, which is all about getting artists and workers together to celebrate.

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Twenty years ago you would have had to be in Toronto to catch a show. Now, the festival takes place in several Canadian cities during the month of May (under the name of Mayweek in some places). Each is organized by a small group of union, community and artist activists who are passionate about drawing attention to the cause of social justice through music, visual art, spoken word, poetry, theatre and other cultural acts.

"The idea of having a festival of cultural events to celebrate working people was inspired more than twenty years ago by a similar festival in Glasgow, Scotland, called Mayfest," explains Toronto Mayworks coordinator Florencia Berinstein. "Catherine Macleod, a union activist and writer, went to check it out. She came back excited and suggested to the Toronto Labour Council's media-and-arts subcommittee that it do the same here. A few years later, Mayworks set up as an organization in its own right, and we've been expanding since."

Toronto Mayworks is the largest festival, with an annual budget of $115,000, a board of directors, two permanent, part-time employees and a small but strong contingent workforce of five. Mayworks festivals in Winnipeg and Edmonton are able to raise enough money to pay someone a few months a year to coordinate their events. The festivals in Moncton, Montreal, Ottawa, Hamilton, Saskatoon, Calgary, Vancouver and Vancouver Island are organized strictly on volunteer labour, often in partnership with other community cultural organizations.

Each year Mayworks produces an impressive, if eclectic, lineup of concerts, theatre shows, film screenings, art exhibits and occasional educational workshops on topics ranging from "how to write protest songs" to "exploring art as community, not commodity."

The point of it all is to make social change by touching people's hearts as well their minds, and have fun doing it. Mayworks also gives visibility and concrete financial support to artists, many of whom work for little pay under difficult circumstances.

"I really appreciate how Mayworks recognizes artists as real workers," says Chris White, a musician who joined the Ottawa committee a few years ago. "I recall how one of the visual artists in the festival a few years ago spoke so movingly about her health being damaged by the toxins in the materials she was using. You wouldn't likely have heard that kind of thing anywhere else."

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This year, Mayworks in Toronto, Edmonton and Winnipeg are collaborating on a three-city tour of young, award-winning poets who were commissioned to write on the theme of work.

This project is supported by a Canada Council for the Arts grant, and was conceived and arranged through the national Mayworks coordinating committee, comprised of local festival organizers who communicate by teleconference calls convened by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).

"This kind of collaboration between the different local groups is really important to us," says Glen Michalchuk, chair of the Winnipeg Mayworks festival. "We're hoping to find more ways to share resources and artists next year."

Raising money is a never-ending chore for Mayworks organizers. Only groups legally incorporated can apply for dwindling government funds. Most of the revenue comes from union donations in cash or services, like printing, graphic design and postage. Arts and culture are not a priority for most unions, although an increasing number are trying to get their message out in creative ways. …

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