How it survived when virtually every other arts event on earth was postponed is a story of immigration, true grit, great taste and good luck.
In 1995, Svetlana Dvoretsky got her degree in show business management from St. Petersburg State University of Culture and Arts in her native Russia. She always wanted to work behind the scenes.
She also wanted to leave Russia. She had an uncle who’d emigrated to Canada 30 years earlier, so she applied to live here. In 1998, she settled in Toronto which has a huge Russian community north of the 401.
She began presenting Russian singers and pianists, and within a few years was presenting the greatest classical stars alive — like Anna Netrebko, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Valery Gergiev — in venues like Roy Thomson Hall, Koerner Hall and Place des Arts in Montreal. Today, in the almost exclusively male world of classical arts impresarios, she is importing the top artists from Russia, Israel, Europe and America, and showcasing Canadian artists like Sondra Radvanovsky and Yannick Nezet Seguin.
But like any entrepreneur, Svetlana wanted to expand. There had to be a better way to immerse audiences in the nub of an artistic experience. Last year she saw the Van Gogh show in Paris. This wasn’t two-dimensional art hung on a wall in a gallery, but his most famous images played across huge industrial walls, with classical music to engulf the visual feast. That show in Paris spawned others, and it got Svetlana thinking about bringing it to Toronto, with its large empty warehouses and sophisticated residents, half of whom were born, like her, outside Canada.
After the usual hell of securing and then losing two prime venues, she and her co-producer, Corey Ross, found space on the ground floor of The Toronto Star Building at One Yonge Street, which will be torn down eventually to make room for a “supertall” 95-storey condo.
Immersive Van Gogh isn’t like streaming tonight’s Netflix movie on your wall.
These shows need top-flight direction, and while the space can be ‘rough’, the production can’t be. So she and her colleagues had to create large inner walls within One Yonge, plus a separate lobby area.
This costs big money, which they had to raise. Luckily also, one of the producers has a lot of experience in construction.
On February 4th Svetlana announced the show would open on May 1.
Within 30 days, she’d sold a million dollars in tickets. Without spending a penny on advertising.
Then in mid-March, the pandemic shut everything down.
Back then, Svetlana told me they’d have to refund the million dollars in tickets, take her losses and see if she still had a business by the time the pandemic lifted. On the one hand, it wasn’t as if Van Gogh himself would have to reschedule his appearance. On the other, she had $2 million in sunk costs and lots of contracts to fulfill – with no money at all coming in.
It soon became clear there was another option. There are no seats at Immersive Van Gogh. It’s not just immersive because it surrounds you, but because you can surround it: go up and touch it, walk up close, see it from afar, stand up, sit down, wander about.
Even if people had to be no closer than 10 feet from each other, that actually works because the space is so big. Social distancing here is not a slower form of suicide. It’s built into the business model.
So Svetlana and her colleagues decided to go ahead with the show. They had no real idea if anyone would come since on opening day, July 1, the rules around gathering in groups were still iffy and ever-changing. As they are today.
But open they did, and as of last weekend, they’ve sold 72,000 tickets starting at $35 per ticket.
There’s so much space at One Yonge that there’s also a separate drive-in show, where up to 10 cars per hour can see the same show but from the car. This “Drive-In Preview” gives you free access to the Main Walk-In show later on. Tickets are $100 per car.
Everyone these days says we’re starved for entertainment beyond our couch. It seems we are – all day long. Immersive Van Gogh runs from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and to midnight on weekends.
A full house in pre-COVID times was planned at 600 people per show, which runs for an hour. But COVID has cut that back to under 200 people per show.
The reviews are in and are as heady as the box office. CTV called it “a completely new way of encountering art,” while CBC News hailed its “innovation, creativity and safety.”
The headline in The Washington Post said: “To safely reopen, creative thinkers inherit the new normal”.
It seems in Toronto, in the form of a Russian émigré woman entrepreneur and cultural impresario with a big tolerance for risk and a small bit of luck, they already have.