In the past decade, queer Westfest founder Elaina Martin has grown the multidisciplinary arts festival from a small, one-day event held in a convenience-store parking lot to a four-day attraction that boasts an attendance of close to 100,000.
This year’s event will act as a retrospective of the first 10 years of Westfest and, not coincidentally, feature several queer performers.
Martin deliberately created Westfest to be inclusive, a place where queer people and racial minorities can see themselves reflected in the lineup. In that, she says, the festival’s mandate is unique.
“It’s really hard for groups of many different types of people with different lifestyles to go into these big arenas of 17,000 straight people locked by a giant fence. I think Westfest is important for that,” she says. “It offers something up that there isn’t elsewhere.
“I’m queer and I’m out. I’m so proud of being out. That’s my family and I want to promote my family. I’m proud to produce queer acts, and I’m proud to talk about them being queer,” she says.
Martin began organizing festivals in 2001 with the Rock City Women’s Festival, which was staged at the Wakefield quarry and saw 800 mostly queer women descend on the tiny Quebec town.
“There were a lot of gay boys out there, too,” Martin says. “We had a big drag event on the last night. The girls from The Lookout set up a bar for me. That was a beautiful festival. I loved it.”
Although thankful for the experience of staging Rock City, Martin divulges that the festival was not lucrative and she essentially “lost her shirt” producing it.
She moved to Ottawa and secured a position as the Westboro BIA’s marketing director, where she soon saw an opportunity to bring the fun of Rock City into an urban setting.
Some people doubted that a music and art festival in Westboro would be viable, but the gay owner of a nearby flower shop isn’t surprised that it succeeded.
“When Elaina wants something to happen, she makes it happen,” says Tivoli Florist’s Michael Corbeil.
Still, Corbeil admits he initially doubted Martin’s plan.
“The year of the first Westfest was also the year that Richmond Road was dug up for reconstruction,” he says. “Elaina said that she was going to take our little, hokey annual Westboro Day and turn it into a weekend event with street closure and some big-name acts. This would surely bring some much-needed business and publicity to Westboro. I’m sure I was not alone in thinking that this would be impossible to pull off, but lo and behold the street was closed to traffic.”
If Martin was daunted reaching out to local businesses as a queer woman in the early days of Westfest, she didn’t let it show.
“I make it kind of hard to resist me,” she says with a laugh. “I’m super confident and I’m also very sure about what I do in my skills. When people are confident and sure of themselves, it makes it hard for people to resist.”
Wearing one’s sexuality on one’s sleeve is how queer people should conduct themselves, Corbeil says.
“I love the fact that she is so out there, so clearly lesbian but not making a big deal about it, which really is as we all should be. This is me, this is who I am, and it really makes no difference. Proud but without preaching about it – Elaina really is one of a kind.”
So is Westfest, which has remained a free festival throughout its run. Martin says the festival’s close to $1-million operating budget is almost completely funded by sponsors, with the exception of $20,000 from the city and a small grant from the federal government.
“It’s me hustling, creating, sustaining and maintaining relationships with business people in the city, who really fund 99 percent of the festival,” she says.
Finding a location for Westfest’s main stage has proven to be a challenge each year. Martin seeks out empty spaces that are quickly developed the following year. This year Westfest will fill the parking lot of the Real Canadian Superstore, which will house a large condo building by 2014.
Martin predicts that next year will be Westfest’s last.
“I want to go out while we’re still great,” she says. “Before it shrivels up into this dried-out nothing because it can’t continue anymore. Not everything needs to be forever; it can just be a great thing that went on for 11 years.”
She says she has been approached by larger festivals that want to take the reins but has so far resisted, concerned that Westfest’s fundamental character would be altered.
“They are going to charge and they are going to change the mandate of it,” she says. “When we’re done, we’re done, and we will leave the legacy as is: this really awesome thing that happened for a decade or more that was inclusive of everyone.”
As a decade of Westfest draws to a close, Martin cites singing onstage with Skydiggers and the opportunity to highlight local artists as her favourite memories. She is also thankful that Westfest, so far, remains disaster-free. “I’ve never had any stages fall down, never had any big storms, never had anyone get hurt.
“I’m going to put on the next two years of the best festival that I possibly can, and then, when it’s time to say goodbye, I’m going to bow out with my head high. There’s no bitter; it’s just all sweet.”
Queer artists at Westfest
Thurs, June 6
Lyndell Montgomery of Captain Dirt and The Skirt, 7:15pm
Zoe Whittall, 8:25pm
Fri, June 7
The Cliks, 6pm
Sat, June 8
Cindy Baker, 9:05pm
Sun, June 9
Amanda Rheaume, 8pm
Cara Tierney, 9:30pm