Winnipeg Folk Festival artists hope they’ll feel welcome after last year’s creations were dismantled

Winnipeg Folk Festival attendees who say their elaborate art installations weren’t welcome on the campground of last year’s event have reservations about the new approach from festival organizers.

For years, the festival invited people to set up campground art installations with decorations or games through a curated process, though campers could also choose to do so independently. The program was discontinued last year and some people who chose to mount art installations anyway were surprised when they were asked to take them down.

This year’s approach is being described by the festival as “more inclusive” and “grassroots” by removing the formal selection process, but some artists say the new rules are vague and it’s unclear if popular installations — ranging from enclosed domes to a giant wooden horse — will be eligible.

Over the years, Laura Souter and her friends have built a geodesic dome and set up a tent full of costumes that festival attendees could borrow.

“All of us who’ve built this art, that’s been there in the past … are we going to spend all the time and stuff to bring it in and then just be shut down again? We’re confused. We haven’t been approached to talk,” Souter said.

“Everybody’s very trepidatious and hesitant to go back because of how things were handled last year.”

The annual celebration of folk music returned in 2022 after a two-year absence, owing to the pandemic, but the curated animator program that resulted in many unique campsites did not.

Folkies will be back dancing to live music in summer 2022, say organizers of the Winnipeg Folk Festival. (winnipegfolkfestival.ca)

Souter was told the festival didn’t have the resources or staffing to resurrect the program, which solicited proposals and granted the winning artists free admission to the festival and early access to Birds Hill Park to install art pieces that many spent weeks putting together.

Souter, however, still showed up to last year’s festival to install her group’s dome. The festival had always allowed others to set up their art installations, even if they weren’t selected for the curated program.

Festival volunteers seemed appreciative they were back to install their dome and nothing seemed amiss, she said. 

But several hours later, they were told to take down their art, which included a silk canopy draped over their dome and a programmed LED light show.

‘Treated as a nuisance’

No explanation was provided, Souter said, nor have they had a discussion about this year’s plan. 

“It’s discouraging to be treated as a nuisance instead of as a collaborative partner, and that’s ultimately what I would like is a clear means of collaborating with the Folk Fest in a way that we know what they’re doing is to all of our benefit and not something that’s going to be policed on the day,” Souter said.

A Folk Fest spokesperson said the dismantling of art installations in 2022 was the result of “some miscommunication,” which they say has been rectified and clear guidelines have been established. 

They pitched the new program as a creative opportunity available to every camper. It will include a contest for someone to win four tickets to next year’s festival.

The new criteria limits the size of tents and states yurts and geodesic domes are allowed if safely installed.

Reed Makayev, who has developed art pieces annually with Souter, is worried if, or how, the new rules will be enforced.

“Having been once bitten, twice shy, I would hate to go through all that work and then be told it doesn’t necessarily satisfy our new requirement.”

He’s regularly put up art at Folk Fest because it was one of the few venues in Manitoba where art could be displayed, seen by thousands and still intact after the weekend is through. 

“It was rarely about, ‘Hey, look at the thing I made,’ and more just watching the look on people’s face as they got to experience this. That’s what I like,” Makayev said.

Attendees lie on the grass, underneath a geodesic dome, at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
The various art installations have long been another form of entertainment for those taking in the annual celebration of folk music. (Submitted/Laura Souter)

Tanner Markin said his only experience with the formal animator program, as he puts it, was receiving an annual rejection letter.

Though the program felt somewhat elitist, Markin said, he still submitted his proposal every year and set up his art anyway.

He said being told to dismantle his own dome last year, after weeks of effort, felt crushing. The art, he said, helped make the experience for many campers. 

It contributed to why he didn’t buy festival tickets on the day they became available, ending years of tradition. He wasn’t sure he wanted to go. But he changed his mind once the new art policy came out. 

“The fact that they are at least going to allow people to set up what they’ve built versus telling them to remove it, I think that it shows that they know [the art installations] are important,” Markin said.