SPARC Interviews … Marie Zimmerman about the Guelph Fab 5

The Guelph Fab 5 are five arts festivals in the Guelph area that have formed a unique collaborative model founded on co-presenting and co-producing. Comprised of the Guelph Dance Festival, the Hillside Festival, the Guelph Jazz Festival, Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, and the Guelph Film Festival, the Guelph Fab 5 has been over ten years in the making, has overcome many challenges along the way, and is a great example of the power of true collaboration.  This week Rebecca chats with Marie Zimmerman (current Executive Director of the Hillside Festival) about the evolution of this collaborative model. 



How did the Guelph Fab 5 start?

It happened organically. The managers of all five festivals were all in contact quite a bit, and we thought ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could do one big festival all together?’ That was too daring a concept, really, and would take a lot of funds and organization, so instead we started talking about doing some marketing together. This was in about 2006. We were all united by the fact that we were promoting contemporary, cutting edge art of some kind; each festival had established itself as a presenter that pushed boundaries. So we started developing a postcard that would tie all five festivals together and establish us as a group: The “Guelph Fab 5”. Once we had designed the postcard (on the front was a poster image from each festival, with each festival’s name, and on the back was a quote or byline from each) we got in touch with a woman who was part of Tourism at the City of Guelph, and she ended up funding the distribution, which meant that the postcard went out to a whole bunch of tourism outlets around Ontario (in addition to local and regional sites). Our first campaign as the Guelph Fab 5 was “a city for all seasons”: Hillside Inside in February, the Dance Festival in May, July is the Hillside Festival and then in September it’s the Writers’ Festival and the Jazz Festival, and in November, the Film Festival.

So it really started as a marketing idea.

How has the collaboration evolved since?

Well, we applied for a Strategic Initiatives grant through Canadian Heritage to support further marketing endeavours. It provided funds for us to hire a consultant – somebody who could work on getting a campaign together – so that’s what we did. With the consultant we developed a sponsorship package for the Fab 5 to use collectively. We faced a lot of challenges with collective sponsorship, however, because different festivals had different policies surrounding promotion at their festivals. So we ran into many different kinds of problems, but the whole experience was really rich for us, educationally. And through all of these efforts to market and secure sponsorships together, we stumbled on co-presenting, which is our current model. Having each festival present acts at the other festivals.

We got funding from Ontario Trillium Foundation to create a manual about our model, and the manual basically condenses ten years of our learning about how to negotiate and operate very smoothly a collective of five imaginative, interesting, opinionated festivals. It’s a bit peculiar perhaps, but we’ve applied it to other festivals that want to partner with us and it works really well.

In brief, the host festival always provides hospitality and technical production support, and the incoming festival pays the artists’ fees. And both festivals are promoting the co-presentation.

Is that manual something that others can access?

Yes. If people are interested in looking at it they can just contact me.

You’ve mentioned some challenges throughout the evolution of the model – I would imagine that others arose because of the different organizational structures of the festivals?

Yes – some came from philosophical differences. Some festivals were more protective than others and that was problematic because we really needed people to be motivated by the bigger picture: We are going to serve our community better if we cooperate. This means we all need to be open and divulge information about how we work, and what we pay and so on. It’s unfortunate that not-for-profit festivals and events see each other as competitors because they are competing for funding. So we had a hard time overcoming that.

Transitions in staffing continue to pose challenges sometimes. If somebody is leaving a festival and has someone succeeding them, they really have to make sure they are passing along the right information about the model and the responsibilities of each festival.

How do you negotiate the co-presentations? What does that process look like?

Ideally, one festival will pick an act that they feel represents their festival and will also work with the infrastructure of another festival. They approach that other festival and present their idea and things move forward from there. Sometimes festivals are approached by artists. For example, Hillside might be contacted by a dancer who wants to perform at our festival. We would then reach out to the Dance Festival and ask if they would like to co-present the dancer at our festival. And then the Dance Festival makes the decision based on the artist and how they align with their mandate, etc.

We negotiate these co-presentations throughout the year. We start talking in September for the months ahead and we have conversations about what we’re doing and ideas that we have.

The important thing with a collaborative model is to keep it all out on the table. All the potentially difficult and awkward conversations – you need to have them.

Are there any plans for new collaborative events or expansions on the current model?

We did try to do a cabaret night where each festival presented something – so five different art forms in one evening. It didn’t really work – I think that was partly the venue and partly the format being so different from what each festival usually does.

Going forward we will be changing our name from the “Guelph Fab 5” to the “Guelph Fab Festivals” to enable us to partner with other festivals that have come to the area. As soon as you announce yourself to be a ‘city of festivals’ you attract people who are in the arts. So now we have a fringe theatre festival, a comedy festival, we’ve got a couple of other music festivals. Festivals are proliferating and we would be happy to co-present things with them.

What are some positive outcomes you’ve seen as a result of the collaboration?

We’ve seen audiences at each festival increase for sure – anywhere from 22-74%.

A smaller festival like the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival has been able to advertise their festival more throughout the entire year–something that they weren’t able to do as much of in the past because of limited resources.

We also did some surveys that looked at the economic impact of the five festivals – how much money we were bringing into the region collectively. Having the quantitative value of the festivals certainly garnered some positive attention.

And what those surveys also revealed was that people were surprised at the beauty and the value of other art forms that they were able to see at other festivals. They felt that that was a real gift.

Are there any tips that you would give to others interested in pursuing a similar kind of collaborative model? What sorts of conversations should be had before they come to you for the manual?

There are a number of principles and practices outlined in the manual itself in terms of where to start and what each festival needs to do (i.e. designate one person who will represent the festival and have the power to make decisions, ensure each festival rep can contribute about 120 hours/year to the partnership etc.).

I would say the most important thing to do when you’re entering into this kind of collaboration is to establish whether or not the collaborators are on the same page philosophically about the value of the arts and about the value of getting their art form in front of new audiences. I know that must sound oxymoronic – when you talk about developing audiences everybody wants to do that – but you have to be willing to collaborate in a really open way. You can’t just try to attract someone else’s audience and not be willing to give back. Everyone has to want to collaborate and share resources and share audiences, and recognize the value in that.


To learn more about the Guelph Fab 5, visit their Facebook page, follow them on Twitter, and feel free to get in touch with Marie, at 


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