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What Toronto can learn from Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake: communities can thrive when they prioritize the arts

Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, home to the Stratford and Shaw festivals, feel like artistic utopias, a dream that arts lovers and practitioners in Toronto can only imagine. 

May 17, 2024

The Toronto Star

By Joshua Chong

We build our cities around many things. 

Some are defined as centres of commerce and business. Others, like those great cities in Europe, are built around glorious cathedrals, whose spires tower above the skyline. Then there are yet others which, in place of churches and office towers, erect sports arenas and institutions of higher education. 

But it’s increasingly rare these days to find places where art is at the centre of their existence. It’s why destinations like Niagara-on-the-Lake and Stratford, Ont., home to Canada’s two largest repertory theatre companies, feel like lonely oases in an unending desert. 

I’ve been visiting both towns for the past decade and each visit always offers a welcome change of scenery from the humdrum monotony of life in the city. These are communities that are built differently, places where creativity and art aren’t swept aside but celebrated. 

It’s almost like a real-life “Schmigadoon.” Live music fills the air. Artists rub shoulders with audiences. And the talk of the town is not on the latest game score (I’ve yet to find a local sports bar in either town), but rather about the previous night’s performance. 

Stratford: things to do and see in Ontario’s mecca for arts and culture

In the evenings, restaurants are filled to the brim by half-past five; an early dinner here is not an exception but the norm, necessary for visitors to arrive on time for their evening performances. 

It’s these small quirks of life in an artistic town that draw a smile to my face. But more than that, places like Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake have much to teach us about how we benefit when we prioritize the arts in our communities.

It’s a lesson that feels important now, as major cities like Toronto reckon with the role that the arts play in their cultural identities. Add on top of that an affordability crisis that especially threatens creative industries and those who work in them. 

Comparatively, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Stratford feel like artistic utopias, a seemingly unfulfillable dream that arts lovers and practitioners in Toronto can only imagine for our city. But the two theatre towns also offer a blueprint of what’s possible when you pair leadership with a daring vision. 

It’s what turned Niagara-on-the-Lake into the regional economic engine that it is today, a destination for not merely its wineries but also its theatres. (The Shaw Festival, which mounts roughly 10 mainstage productions each year, drives more than $220 million in local cultural and tourism spending each year.)

In Stratford, its eponymous festival was established some seven decades ago, the dream of journalist Tom Patterson, who aimed to revive the town amid an economic downturn caused by the demise of its manufacturing industry. In just several years, the town on the banks of the Avon River shifted its focus from railway and train manufacturing to arts and culture.

Now, the success of the Stratford Festival has also spawned other cultural institutions in the city, including Stratford Summer Music and Here For Now Theatre. 

It’s telling that, so many Canadian artists who have the talent to make it big on Broadway or in London’s West End choose to remain in Stratford or Niagara-on-the-Lake — a testament to the artistic communities that both places have fostered. 

If only the same could be said about Toronto, where artists have left the city in droves or decided that art is not a profession worth pursuing. That’s a terrible indictment of our city. So too is seeing historic theatres turned into drug stores. (I’m looking at you, Shoppers Drug Mart at the former Runnymede Theatre; if that doesn’t spell concrete-jungle mundanity, I don’t know what does.)

Arts and culture are ultimately what give a community life. We lose sight of that and we lose sight of our societal identity.