Maybe it’s time to kill the May Show

Copyright ImageLittle Victor and Diane at the Arbor Gallery



The May Show of today is a pale imitation of the May Show that was so successful through the 1980’s and the first half of the 90’s, so maybe it’s time to stop pretending and just let it die.

The May Show was an arts festival started thirty years ago by a group of talented artists living in or around Vankleek Hill, a small picturesque Ontario village exactly halfway between Montreal and Ottawa.

But fifteen years ago it unofficially stopped being an arts festival and had morphed into a small street fair with face painting, crafts, music, a beer tent and ethnic dancing troops.

Thirty years ago the twelve artists who created the May Show had been exhibiting their work in seasonal shows. Eventually it just made sense to consolidate to a single annual show, they chose the Victoria Day long weekend, and their project grew into the largest arts festival in the region.

It brought thousands of people to Vankleek Hill every year, not just from the region, but from the major cities surrounding Vankleek HIll. Their* art work — photography; ceramics; stained glass; abstract painting; sculptures; weaving; even a few poets — was shown publicly in private homes, in storefronts on Main Street and in a few small galleries.

It was a show.

What we have now is not a show, it is a slightly dysfunctional festival that is still advertising itself as an arts exhibition, when the only art has been relegated to two rooms far away from Main Street. Last year there weren’t even any signs showing where the art gallery is located.

At least this year there was a tiny arrow on a stick pointing in the right direction.

Until fifteen years ago the May Show received attention from The Montreal Gazette and the Ottawa Citizen, as well as from Ottawa’s CTV affiliate. Now, if anything, it’s a small blurb.

The announcement posters for the original May Show were beautiful hand painted water colours of local flowers. For the past few years the posters have been done in a bizarre, stylized, almost unreadable cursive font, with a couple of tiny thumbnail photos and aren’t even posted in all of Vankleek Hill’s storefronts. Anyone walking down Main Street in Hawkesbury, a small city eight miles away, would not find one poster in any window advertising the May Show.

Any goodwill the artists created with their out-of-town audience through the quality of their product, and by keeping the promises in their advertising, is long gone.

The May Show has been dying a slow, excruciating death because the people running it are stuck. I think they’re trapped by the name, which still has some small cachet useful in advertising and marketing their product.

But it’s simple business: when you sell people a box of oranges and they open that box and find ripe, juicy oranges, they’re going to be happy. They’ll come back for more. They’ll tell their friends and family all about your fantastic oranges.

And if, year after year, you provide them with wonderful oranges in a pretty box they’re going to be more likely to forgive you if, once in a while, they find a rotten orange. Or even just a couple of tangerines.

They’ll even forgive you if they open that box one year and find apples. Tart, under ripe, green apples. They’ll forgive you if it happens once. Or twice. But if you keep selling them a pretty box with pictures of oranges, and they keep finding apples, eventually they won’t be coming back.

In fact, they’ll probably stay away from your Orange Show altogether.

It’s such basic business 101 that it’s weird to me why the Vankleek Hill Business and Merchants Association continues to package their apples in a box covered in oranges.

They have to kill the May Show, get rid of the name, come up with a new name — “Vankleek Hill’s Celebration of Spring”, or something — and focus the activities to the new concept.

For example, over the past few years the third day of the current May Show has been relegated to the park, blocks away from Main Street. Fine. But how do out-of-townees find the park with almost zero directions? There’s a small purple, one sheet pamphlet, but where do they find it?

So, don’t advertise the third day on the pamphlets, make the third day about the locals. For everyone else the Celebration of Spring is a two day event. Maybe throw in Friday night as well. But, for people who live around Vankleek Hill, the Monday of Victoria Day weekend becomes solely about us.

Right now, on Monday, there’s a box lunch charity auction, singing, and, basically, an excuse to enjoy an afternoon as a community.

So, why not throw in a charity softball game? Use the day as a grand opening for the SplashPad — and a contest to decide which kid gets to step on the button to activate the waterworks for the first time. On the really scorching days, like the one we just had, have a community ‘water-balloon’ fight.

Have a ‘beginning of Spring BBQ’ in the early evening.

It’s the name — May Show Festival — that’s acting like an anchor on what could be a very successful spring festival. Today, no one looking at a poster advertising “the May Show Festival” has any clue what a ‘may show’ is. Because there hasn’t been a proper May Show in fifteen years.

It has become just another poorly worded brand.

A new concept, with a new brand, would clarify the product — the Festival — to the consumer. Apples on the box, apples in the box. It’s not a question of taking the Art out of the festival, but when the original artists started showing collectively, they put on theme shows.

And the original May Shows were about spring. So, with a proper spring festival, local artists could focus on presenting spring-related material.

Which, of course, is a problem. Very few local artists participate in the May Show anymore. Which is lunacy. The original May Show created an entirely new generation of very talented artists, it gave them their first place to exhibit. Some of the bands went on to sign with major labels, some of the artists went on to show their work in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto. But, once it was apparent the festival had morphed into something different, they stopped seeing the May Show as an artist-friendly festival.

They must be encouraged to come back.

The Vankleek Hill Business and Merchants Association works very hard to maintain the festival. And they do a good job in attracting talented crafts-people and performers. But it just seems as though they’re trapped between what they want, and what used to be.

So, maybe it’s time they finally killed the May Show, and ended the confusion.


*My mother was part of the original group as a photographer, and several of my friends — painters, musicians, photographers — used the May Show to start their careers as artists.



The ‘Grace Haven Dancers’ were definitely a highlight of this year’s Vankleek Hill’s Victoria Day Spring Festival / VKH Celebration of Spring / the Vankleek Hill Spring Jubilee / 31st Annual Vankleek Hill Supreme Gala of Renewal and Rejoicing / Vankleek Hill Spring Fest 2012…




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About Gabriel

I’ve lived in more than fifty places. I've been paid to pick stones out of fields, take backstage photos of Britney Spears, and report on Internet privacy issues. My photos have been published in several newspapers, and a couple of magazines.
This entry was posted in Champlain Township, Eastern Ontario, Entertainment, Hawkesbury, Reporting, Vankleek Hill, Writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Maybe it’s time to kill the May Show

  1. Pingback: A conversation with Susan Jephcott on the influence of Freda Pemberton-Smith on Vankleek Hill’s artistic community | Vankleek Hill's Arbor Gallery

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