We decided as a family to attend one of Harbourfront Centre’s many weekend festivals, “Ritmo y Color”, a few weeks back. Many of you know that coming from Durham Region, as from any suburb surrounding the GTA, this is sort of a rare treat: to go spend the day in the city and walk around as “Tourists for the Day” kind of thing. What I found out that weekend, after a couple of years absence, was that this was almost a brand new place with many new (and wonderful) additions. So we took to the task of rediscovering area, which turned out to be a really gratifying and eye-opening adventure.

Rediscovering Harbourfront Centre is in fact the current mandate for its staff, said Marah Braye, Harbourfront Centre’s CEO.“For a couple of years the construction was very intense so it was very hard to get down here. So when the street actually reopened in June of 2015, that actually opened the gates for people to rediscover Harbourfront. That’s really what our mandate is at the moment: rediscovering Harbourfront Centre, rediscovering the waterfront, rediscovering what is actually happening down here year round.”

Now, I may be totally biased about this place as I personally have a little bit of history here, having worked there as a summer camp counsellor in my high school/university years. Over the years I have collected many cherished and happy memories. So it was a pleasant surprise to see so many wonderful additions: the much improved large, open-air venue that is the Ann Tindal Park, the beautifully redesigned 1,300-seat outdoor Concert Stage, the Fleck Dance Theatre, the two very inviting and relaxing open spaces named the Canada and Ontario Squares (that sit where the old parking lot used to be) and really more than 30 venues to explore within the 10-acre waterfront property.

Harbourfront Centre, however, is now, as it’s always been, so much more than a beautiful set of beautifully redesigned structures: there has always been a buzz and a vibe about this place as an incubator and a mecca for a vast array of art disciplines. The non-profit cultural organization, in fact, describes itself as a place that “for more than 40 years has been on the cutting edge of all that is current and creative, bringing together the best in both Canadian culture and the rich mosaic of cultures from within our country and around the world.” Realizing early on the beauty and richness of Toronto’s multiculturalism, diversity has always been at the core of the “eclectic programming, engagement and entertainment it provides.” Over the years Harbourfront Centre has built a reputation as a top-notch showcasing venue for nascent and trending artists as well as an obligatory stop for well established artists to the City of Toronto.

“Which is in the mandate”, says recently appointed Chief Programming Officer Iris Nemani. “That’s the kind of work that Harbourfront has always been known for. I think when it first started it was really one of the only places where communities could come and celebrate their culture here. And that’s sort of evolved and always been the underlying premise of what happens here as a safe, beautiful place for communities to come and celebrate and express their culture. And I think that that’s never left in all of the programming— celebrating unique particular moments for a particular culture that are very important; and the opportunity also for cross-pollination of cultures. That’s a lot of what the evolution has been: going from just celebrating one community to actually (celebrating all communities) because Toronto is so diverse. And as people start interacting culturally, you start getting new sounds and new ideas, and this is the place where those new ideas can be realized.”

Appointing Nemani to the role of CPO is part of a much larger vision, says Braye, moving forward into the future not only as an institution, but also with Harbourfront being at the centre of a larger vision for the waterfront area: Waterfront Toronto’s “long term plan to beautify the area and actually make it more accessible to the public,” says Braye. “Given that it’s at the water’s edge, I think Toronto in the last decades has come to understand that it’s actually a harbour side, a harbour front city, and it’s started concentrating to that more— to its benefit.” To that effect, Harbourfront Centre’s is “actually looking at our programming from a holistic merging of disciplines and the way that they speak to one another as well as looking at long term programming. So the concentration really is in how we’re programming the site and what we’re thinking about in term of long term. So we want to move to a situation where we’re really planning several years out, not just one or two.”

Moreover, it being a charity organization, it is also important for its programming to be not only culturally engaging and reflecting of Toronto’s diverse communities, but also as financially accessible and readily available as possible. “Someone said to me,” says Braye, “‘How would you describe Harbourfront Centre as an organization?’ I said, a) it’s really important that everything accessible and that it’s financially easy to come down here so that we offer as much free programming as possible. And the other thing is to be not only a converter, having people to come on site who just to go for a walk actually stopping and engaging with a particular art form, but then you actually have Harbourfront Centre and the artists that we work with being feeders to the other cultural institutions around the city. So we’re showing people here often at a time when they’re emerging in their discipline and then happily they come back when they’re more established.”

This long-standing cultural centre must find a fine balance between being a government-funded charity and being a corporate enterprise, which, says Braye, it’s an important thing they’re focusing on communicating at the moment so that they are able to “keep what we’re doing being sustainable. We actually need a lot of individual support and donations to keep making the programming free. Our government funding is about 35% and the rest of the other 65 we raise through parking revenue. Even when people are parking down here, they’re helping support the free programming.” Other sources of revenue, says Braye, are the summer camps and any sort of commercial enterprise (like the newly created on-site restaurants The Slip and the World Café); financial ventures that in turn help support the free programming.

They also partner up with corporations, which also entails finding a balance with corporate responsibility, says Nemani. “Sometimes people look at it and say, ‘Why are all these corporations on a site like this tied to the arts?’ But it’s through their support that we can actually engage artists. We pay all of our artists. Everybody that is engaged on this site gets paid for the work that they do. And yet because we want to be building audiences and it’s important for us to be accessible, that part is free for the audience. So in order to make that balance, we need support both through individual giving and through corporate partners, to support the work, ultimately. They support the artists so we can then offer to our audience. You also don’t want it to become totally corporate. This is about community; community is really important and it’s at the foundation of what we do. It’s about community: using arts to build community.”

At the core of it all, however, is the interaction between the artists (both merging and established) and the audiences they serve. And the way this ongoing interaction is created and fed, as it’s been the case over the years, is through community partnerships. Harbourfront Centre’s arts curators are invited and attend local and international festivals and events in order to find the best artists— not just musicians but also other performing (dance, theatre, film), visual and literary artists and gastronomy experts. Most of these artists, Nemani admits, are more than eager and willing to perform here.“Harbourfront Centre for many artists is a very special place to perform. There’s nothing like it in the country, really: on the waterfront, with audiences— thousands of people that they get to perform for.” These community partnerships are a great opportunity for both the venue and the artists, whether they are emerging or established.

So what can tourists and locals (or suburban day visitors like ourselves) expect to see and do when visiting Harbourfront Centre for the day? There are many festivals and events happening all summer long and year round, in fact, geared towards whole families, with many events and activities— a great majority of them interactive— catering to children and youth. The great majority of these activities are either free or at a low cost to audiences.

Driving there from Pickering was fairly easy (401/DVP/QEW) and finding parking in the newly built underground parking facility right on site was a breeze. This cultural mecca is also easily accessible by Go Transit and TTC (from Union Station you can catch the 509 Harbourfront streetcars that run East-West). If you feel like exploring the entire waterfront area a little further you can either go for a walk or catch a little more of it by riding a bike— either your own or you can rent one at the Bike Share Toronto station nearby.

Hungry? So many choices available: besides The Slip and the World Café right on site, we found many other great restaurants around like the Amsterdam Brew House, Shoeless Joe’s Sports Grill, St. Louis Bar & Grill, the Watermark Irish Pub & Restaurant. And you know what else we were so thrilled to find nearby? Beaver Tails! That’s right, no need to go to Ottawa to find these yummy treats.

So this was it: we were sold on coming back again and again to rediscover the area with everything Harbourfront Centre and the entire Queens Quay area has to offer. Visiting from Durham Region and playing tourists, exploring all the different areas of Harbourfront Centre for the day turned out to be a wonderful, enriching way to rediscover one of my favourite and most memorable spots in this beautiful city, and we encourage you (urge you, really) to do the same not just for what’s left of the summer, but year round, as this place never stops buzzing with activity.

Coming Up This Weekend:

Hot and Spicy Food Festival (Focusing this year on the Southern United States)
Highlights include Tremmé Brass Band from New Orleans, plus local blues and Dixieland bands. Great BBQ competition with 3 local BBQ chefs and one from Mexico. The winner will be chosen by the participating audience. Event includes demos of special secret rubs.
Sunday: A Chef-led special competition where children will create vegetarian chilli.

Check out the Festivals & Activities Section of Harbourfront’s Website to find out about other exciting happenings in the next few weeks, like Wednesday Nights “Free Flicks” and Thursday Nights “Dancing on the Pier”.

Photos Below Courtesy of Harbourfront Centre.