4 min

Glowfair Festival ignites Ottawa’s cultural scene

Diverse street fair takes over the downtown core for one weekend only

Festivalgoers dance in the street to music in their headphones at the 2014 Silent Disco. Credit: Glow Fair

Here in Canada, our big cities tend to have their own unique reputations: Vancouver’s the place to chill out, with lush natural beauty and a laid back vibe; Toronto’s the home to great theatre, upscale dining and thriving business; and Montreal’s where the party’s at. And Ottawa? Well, our country’s capital is the seat of government; a staid town with interesting sights and a sombre, dignified atmosphere.

Or is it?

Last year, tourists and residents were likely a little surprised when the heart of this tidy and efficient city positively exploded with light, colour and music. It was the first annual Glowfair Festival, and it was vibrant, rollicking and absolutely glorious. Over two days, thousands of visitors marvelled at zany street performers and vivid art installations, while smells of exotic foods filled the air. Families poured into the downtown core, reveling in the chance to walk down Bank Street with their kids on their shoulders, taking in the clowns, buskers, vendors and the sight of their city in full party mode.

And when night fell, that’s when Ottawa gave Montreal a solid run for its money in the party department.

There was neon everywhere. Light and song poured from three stages housing DJs and live music acts. Buildings were awash in projected images. It was part-fairy-tale and part-bacchanal – as though Bank Street, tired of playing it straight for so many years, had finally decided to lift its skirt and kick up its heels.

“You know, we were hoping to get about 5,000 people coming out,” says Kevin Martin, owner of menswear store Stroked Ego and a director of the Bank Street BIA. “We ended up with about 27,000. It meant some shuffling around to accommodate everybody, but it was a great problem to have.”

The Bank Street BIA first conceived of the idea as a way to highlight the neighbourhood’s unique local businesses, while giving the community a focus beyond retail and condo life. For BIA executive director Christine Leadman, this meant bringing people together at street-level to show what makes Bank Street so special.

“I always felt that Bank Street had a bit of a disconnect,” Leadman says. “It was always deemed as just an employment area, but people also want to connect to their community. And the main street is essential to that.”

Heather Garrod is the BIA’s chair and is also very involved in Glowfair’s organization and execution. Garrod moved her aromatherapy boutique Planet Botanix to Bank Street, and sees a lot of potential in community building.

“It’s certainly diverse here,” she says. “Our aim is to make it more like a neighbourhood. We’d like to revitalize the downtown core where people are living and playing.  

Surprised and gratified by last year’s unexpected turnout, the BIA has plans for an even bigger and brighter Glowfair this year. They’re bringing back many of the cool stuff from 2014, like the Silent Disco, where revelers were provided with Bluetooth headsets so they could boogie to live DJs long past their neighbours’ bedtimes without being a nuisance. “It was pretty amazing to walk by and see people dancing with no sound,” Martin says with a laugh.

Calgary pop sensations Kiesza and Lowell will be just a few of the exciting acts on Glowfair’s main stage. Also appearing are all-Canadian acts like The New Deal, Tops and The Strain. Martin is particularly stoked for a set by The Peptides, a nine-piece band whose eclectic sound runs from electro-synth pop anthems to tender, acoustic ballads. “They put on such an amazing show,” Martin says. “They really tailor it to the event, so it’s a perfect fit for Glowfair.”

There’s plenty planned for the daylight hours as well. Themed zones will be set up throughout the festival’s eight-block radius, ranging from a Moroccan barbecue and bazaar to the Pinball Wizard skateboard area, complete with ramps and twists and a competition. Visual artists will be creating work in the Art Chaos zone, while aspiring circus performers can attend clown school. Children will also have plenty to do, with kid-centric zones opening at 11am on Saturday. They’ll include a reptile zoo, puppet making, face painting and even an enchanted forest complete with a storyteller.  

It’s certainly a massive undertaking, given the need for things like street closures, licenses for extended hours, networking with other local businesses and corralling all the acts and presenters. Leadman’s previous 14 years with Westboro’s BIA has given her plenty of practice, but the organizing on this large of a scale sounds a bit like trying to herd cats. She clearly thrives on it.

“I find that every BIA is unique,” Leadman says. “Each one has its own character, and we need to really understand what’s happening on the street and what works for each area. We’re fortunate that we have a great festival community, and people in our area that are engaged in the arts community, food and beverage and much more. We have a solid team with those skill sets.”

Sponsorship plays an important part in any festival. The budget for this year is $450,000, and Glowfair boasts some impressive backing from companies like Carlsberg, Morguard, Hydro Ottawa and Jump FM, along with block sponsors and local-level support. This sponsorship allows for top entertainment at no cost to attendees.

“It’s really great to bring something new like this to Ottawa,” Garrod says, whose excitement remains undimmed by all the hard work. “I’m super excited about all the street spacing and activities on the block, and I’m looking forward to trying to stay up late enough this time to see the musical acts. If I can just stay awake!”