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‘This space is for everybody’: Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre celebrates 50 years

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Established in 1974, Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre is marking a milestone this year as it celebrates half a century of bringing people together on the waterfront.

What started out as a Crown Corporation evolved into a non-profit charity in 1990, with an aim to showcase and support the city’s vibrant arts scene.

“The focus has grown to encourage partnerships with arts and culture organizations around the city, as well as pushing the boundaries of contemporary international arts presentations,” explains Director of Cultural Engagement Laura McLeod.

Over the years, the centre has become a vital cultural hub and a place to foster budding talents.

“A lot of people don’t know this, but k. d. Lang performed one of her first shows here at Harbourfront Centre. She stood on top of a table and let loose,” she says.

“We are the starting point for a lot of emerging artists … and then we also welcome back huge stars. We’re really able to bridge those two ends of the artistic spectrum, the emerging and the established,”

“The need for spaces for artists to make work, to show work, to celebrate, for audiences to come together, especially now is so important,” says Nobu Adilman, one half of the duo that leads Toronto’s renowned audience participation singing group Choir! Choir! Choir!

“We need those incubators and they’re closing down all over the city. So Harbourfront Centre is keeping that dream alive, which I think is so crucial.”

Adilman, along with Choir! Choir! Choir! co-founder Daveed Goldman, has taken to the centre’s main stage several times over the years and say the organization exemplifies the inclusive values of the city itself.

“This space is for everybody. It’s for the hipsters, it’s for the artists and for the families that live far out of town. And I just love that at Harbourfront, every weekend you see, kind of, all of Toronto traveling through, which I think is beautiful,” says Adilman.

“It’s a place in Toronto you can come to where you really get the idea that this is a diverse city. And it’s a city that celebrates that, and that’s important,” adds Goldman.

“The only exclusivity about Harbourfront, or Choir! Choir! Choir! for that matter, is that you can’t be exclusionary. In some ways, you have to be open-minded to being around people that may have different thoughts about music and culture and art than you. And that’s healthy for anyone to be around. It’s almost like immersion therapy for culture.”

McLeod adds that another large part of their mission is to make the arts accessible to all.

“Most of our programming is free … so [perhaps there’s] something you’ve always wanted to explore but maybe didn’t have the means. For example, we’re partnering with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) for a free concert of pop music on our stages June 30. So if the TSO is something you’ve always wanted to do but [couldn’t afford], come down,” she says.

In that same spirit, the 50th anniversary festivities will kick off with a free block party on Saturday.

“We have Elliot Brood as headliners. We have Good Enough Live Karaoke, which is a great opportunity for you, a singer, to front a live band on our stages. So if you’ve always been in the audience, come down, be on our stages. We also have a craft and design visual arts opening, so we have live performative painting … in our Gallery 235,” says McLeod.

Other features include a social line dancing class and street food festival.

50th anniversary programming will continue all summer long with numerous cultural events and concerts by home grown talents Tyler Shaw, Fefe Dobson, Crystal Shawanda and what’s being billed as an “epic Canadian sing-along” with Choir! Choir! Choir!

“To celebrate these songs that have sort of been the soundtrack to the country for the last, let’s say 50 years, since this Harbourfront Centre started is going to be really meaningful to everyone here, regardless of how old they are,” says Goldman.

“If you’re 30, if you’re 70, we’re going to sing songs that relate to your coming up into what we know of as Toronto and Canada and being part of this ever changing tapestry.”

“Lot of venues come and go. A lot of festivals come and go, but Harbourfront Centre has been here for 50 years. And for us to be part of that cultural history in a city that’s quite young … it means something,” adds Adilman.

“It means to be part of something much larger than ourselves.”

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