Festival of Banners participant June Bogle adds colour to some water fowl at the banner studio at Nanaimo North Town Centre. This year the festival is operating with half its normal budget. (Josef Jacobson/The News Bulletin)

Nanaimo’s Festival of Banners ‘scraping by’ with reduced funding

'We don't know how much longer we can go,' says project manager

Downtown lightposts will once again be adorned with hand-painted banners as the Festival of Banners sweeps through city streets for its 31st year, but project manager Brenda Peck said this year’s festival almost didn’t happen.

Peck, who has co-ordinated the Festival of Banners for 29 years, said it usually costs $20,000 to cover the event’s expenses each year. This year the Nanaimo Arts Council-run program is operating with half of that budget for the first time, due to unsuccessful applications for B.C. Community Gaming and Arts Council grants, according to NAC general manager Dan Appell.

“We’re in desperate need of money to continue this,” Peck said. “This project almost didn’t happen this year because of that so we don’t know how much longer we can go without our funding, so it’s pretty scary.”

This year the festival will proceed thanks to $8,000 from the City of Nanaimo and $2,000 from the Port of Nanaimo.

Appell said his group has struggled to finance the yearly event since taking it over from the Nanaimo Art Gallery in 2016 following a gradual multi-year transition. He said the arts council broke even that first year, while last year “we came in a little short.”

“We were thinking of dropping it altogether, just losing the program, but the city came through and gave us some funding for it and we’re managing to basically scrape by, I guess you could say,” Appell said.

He added that while it’s a bit of a “bad news story,” “On a positive note, the city has really stepped up,” he said. “They understand the value of the banner festival, which we really, really, super appreciate.”

Appell said as soon as next year the arts council would like to see an independent community-minded organization take over operation of the Festival of Banners with the NAC providing some assistance. He said, “It’s a difficult ask, for sure,” but conceded that running the festival is “a bit beyond our capabilities.”

“If they don’t want to take on this project then I have to figure out how to come up with a council and register it and make it so we can get some funding to continue this on,” Peck said. “Because I don’t want to see this end after 31 years. It’s a horrible thought.”

Peck said the reduced funding has a great impact on the festival. She said it affects how many hours the banner studio is open in Nanaimo North Town Centre, the number of banners they’ll be able to make and their ability to allow students from schools in lower-income areas to participate for free.

“I go home with a sick stomach every day … because we’ve never had half our budget, ever. We’ve always had enough money to do this,” she said.

Peck said she’s been involved with the Festival of Banners for nearly 30 years not only for the sake of downtown beautification, but for the human connections she made over those years.

She said there’s a therapeutic element to group painting and that participants in the past have used the festival as a way to help cope with family and medical challenges. A few years ago one of the painters was dying of cancer

“We actually took a stand and the banner to the hospital because she wanted to finish it and she did. Almost all of it…” Peck said. “That was more or less her last wish was to finish that banner and it is beautiful. Oh my gosh it’s gorgeous. It’s two swans in a marsh. It’s very, very pretty. So those kinds of stories, that’s why I do it.”

For information on how to participate in the Festival of Banners, click here. Banner designs must be submitted by March 31.

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