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Toronto's city builders: New Luminato CEO Anthony Sargent says yes to a bolder Toronto

New Luminato CEO Anthony Sargent

In this special series of interviews, YongeStreet sits down for a chat to get to know some of the most prominent city builders whose work, vision and passion for the city help shape Toronto’s present and future.

Anthony Sargent thinks it’s time Toronto stopped being so shy about its accomplishments and say yes to being bold.

“From the outside, you read Toronto as a big, thrusting, energetic, cosmopolitan city. I was quite struck when I got here with the sense of diffidence I encountered; I was struck that it was sometimes a lack of confidence,” he says.

“What surprised me was a sort of slight sense of a deferential humility in the Canadian psyche,” says Sargent. “You feel it in so many ways. When you enthuse over Canadian things, people are surprised. Most of the time it’s a rather good thing. It’s a rather admirable human quality, but I don’t know that it’s always worked in Canada’s favour.”

Sargent, who was created a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) by the Queen for his services to the arts, has arrived in Toronto to take on the position of CEO of the annual Luminato Festival, which runs from June 10 to 26 in this, its tenth year. His career so far has seen him heading up a roster of institutions that are far from retiring.

Among several assignments for the BBC, Sargent managed the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He has served as Artistic Projects Director for the Southbank Centre, a dynamic arts centre on the south bank of the Thames in London; Head of Arts for Birmingham City Council, and most recently founding General Director at Sage Gateshead, a renowned centre for music performance and education in the North of England.

Before he was asked to take on his new role, Sargent had not visited Toronto very often, but had a sense of Toronto as—in the very best sense—a civilized city, he says. “It’s civilized, genuinely. When I was approached about coming here, I had a sense that I could probably be very happy here and that I would feel very comfortable and creative. And having moved here now, all of those things have been proved true.”

Sargent says he believes Toronto (and Canada) need have no reservations about our cultural scene: “I think there’s a sort of exuberance about the creative community in this country. Brits work very hard at their arts and culture, but there isn’t this sort of incandescence. You feel it in countries like Brazil as well.”

In fact, Toronto would benefit by standing up more proudly and celebrating our achievements, he says, recalling a recent meeting with Mayor John Tory: “He said we have to get better at being a city that says yes; we have to get better at being a city that is, almost in a physical sense, ambitious. I think arts and the arts leaders in this community have a tremendous role to play in moving Toronto to saying yes.”

With an initial agreement to manage Luminato for five years, Sargent has some time to make a real contribution to the city through the activities of a festival he’s been watching with interest over meny years. “I followed the launch of Luminato, and I was absolutely fascinated by the rather gloriously simple and determined positioning that it was about creativity and innovation and invention,” he says.

“Now they’re words that everyone uses, but they didn’t back in 2007. It was a much more visionary and extraordinary step, especially for a place like Toronto that—beautiful and innovative as it was—wasn’t known as a hotbed of international invention.”

As the festival moves into its tenth edition, Sargent envisions three linked ways in which the festival could play a greater role in the cultural landscape of its city—and the country. First of all, he says, “a great festival like Luminato needs to have richer, deeper and more plural connections with the great city like Toronto of which it’s a part. The greatest festivals in the word have a greater sense of local specificity. I think there needs to be more of a sense that Toronto people know the festival is coming and are excited by that, so that we reach out more actively to people in the city and so they reach out to us naturally.”

Second, Sargent says “the festival needs to be read nationally across Canada as a good neighbour of all the festivals that are working up and down across the land. The best festivals are really rich resources in human and professional terms to the arts ecology around them. We need [other arts organizations to] look to us as generous, open-spirited collaborators and partners.”

And he is not afraid to look at the biggest possible picture over the longer term. “If you look around the city-based multi-arts festivals around the world, many people have [Luminato] in their first 12, and I’d like to see it move up to the top five. We deserve a festival like Edinburgh, Sydney or Hong Kong. I think we could play that sort of role for Toronto and Canada more vividly,” he says.

“I’m looking at examples like TIFF, and there’s a wonderful festival in Montreal called Juste pour rire [Just For Laughs]. What’s interesting about both those enterprises is that they started as we did—as being date-specific short-run festivals—and are now year-round enterprises that really enrich those cities. It’s probably not in the next five years, but the five years beyond that,” says Sargent, “but I think there’s an interesting opportunity for Luminato to make a year-round contribution to this city.”
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