This July the Alianait Arts Festival welcomed a new Executive Director, Alannah Johnston, the first Inuk to fill the position in an organization dedicated to fostering the performing arts in Nunavut.
Johnston, 29, first came to the organization in 2016 as Festival Coordinator. But since 2017, she has been training to take on the role of Executive Director to one of the territory’s biggest arts organizations. Online Editor Jessica MacDonald caught up with Johnston to learn about her vision for the festival now that she’s officially steering the ship.
Jessica MacDonald: Let me start with the big question up front: what does it feel like to be the first Inuit Executive Director of Alianait?
Alannah Johnston: It's really amazing so far. I just keep getting so much support from peers and my community, friends and family and our board of directors and Victoria [Victoria Perron, the current Festival Coordinator]. Their excitement is making me so excited, their pride is making me proud.
At the same time, all the interviews [since announcing my new position] have been weird. I’m always behind the scenes. This is why I pay people to be on stage and not me! It’s kind of nerve-wracking, as you can probably tell from my breathing.
Overall though it's just very humbling, overwhelming even, with the amount of support that has come in since we shared the news with everyone. My own post has hundreds of likes and shares.
JM: You joined as a coordinator for the festival at the end of 2016. What has it been like working with the organization over the last couple years and how did you make the jump from Coordinator to Director?
AJ: It was not without its challenges, of course. I was working with the Government of Nunavut when the Festival Coordinator position became available. I've always wanted to work in the arts, but I didn't have a lot of experience in art administration. So when I started working with Alianait, I did a couple internships with the National Art Center (NAC) in Ottawa.
First was a broad training internship on arts administration in all sorts of different fields, like education, promotion and networking. My second internship was strictly on producing shows. I was even able to run the backstage work for a few shows at the NAC on my own! There were a couple times where that got a little bit too much to handle. But like I said, my team here are very supportive. I was actually supposed to take over the position a few years ago, but it just wasn't able to happen the way we anticipated. But it finally happened!
Despite its challenges, my work at Alianiat has been very rewarding for me. I love putting on shows for our audiences, I love doing our projects and workshops and I love being able to promote Inuit and Nunavut artists.
JM: The pandemic forced the closure of your annual festival this summer; what challenges has this created for you and Alianait as a whole?
AJ: Having to cancel the festival this year has actually given me more focused training time on the different aspects of running a festival like accounting and fundraising, rather than trying to put on a festival. So in that sense, it's been helpful for me. I don't think we would have been able to have the changeover in this timeframe if COVID-19 hadn't happened.
However it's been kind of sad, not being able to put on a festival. Over the last couple of weeks, people have been sharing festival memories on Facebook and Instagram and it's so nostalgic. I miss it. But it also gave us the opportunity to explore different avenues to engage our audiences and forced us to be creative when thinking of what we can do for our audiences and for the artists that no longer have live gigs.
We've been trying to bring as much support as we can to artists. It's been a struggle, but we’ve been also working alongside other festivals in Canada and seeing what they're doing, seeing if we can adapt that to Alianait.
JM: Are there any big goals that you're excited to take on in the next few months?
AJ: We have a few things on the go at the moment. We want to try to involve more community organizations for the festival next year, returning to the grassroots of how Alianait was created, as an amalgamation of different organizations in town getting together. It was also a two-week festival, instead of the four days we have right now, with each organization creating their own show or their own day of events. I want to go back into that mindset—although not the two weeks, four days is long enough for me!
We're hoping to put on an online festival in October too. A few festivals in Canada have done their own online festivals, so we don’t need to figure it out by ourselves; we can learn from their example. We’re trying to get one or two artists from each community in Nunavut to put on a set and run for four hours or the whole weekend. I’m excited for that.
Our Embrace Life Tour is usually in September, but with everything happening we postponed it to March. We're hoping things get better so we can follow through, especially for our technical staff who don't have any shows to work on. We're trying to still engage all of our community, because the festival takes a lot of work from people with different skill sets. We’re trying to find different avenues of how we can share their knowledge.
JM: Many arts organizations have been focused on their artists; it’s rare to hear anyone talk about the sound crew and others who work backstage on the events that have been cancelled. Why was this such an area of focus for you?
AJ: Unfortunately a couple of our main sound tech guys in town have had to leave because of the lack of work available to them in Iqaluit, or in Nunavut in general. They've had to go down south. We're down to two people that I know of to run the technical side of the festival.
We've been partners with NAC for years, and they're looking to mentor technical talent so we can maybe get some new people trained in the future.
JM: Do you have any words for festival goers in your community and even those farther afield who would normally be coming to see Alianait this month?
AJ: I just want to say I’m very thankful for all the help that I've received throughout the last couple of years. I'm gonna try my best to keep this festival going, and I hope I can have a positive impact on our community. I hope I can have our community fall in love with the festival just like I do.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.