TCAF: Interview with Miles Baker

Eleanor Davis

Festivals and cons are always fun to attend, but the two or four days people spend enjoying these events come from months of nonstop planning and preparation that people attending will not see at all. It all stems from tons and tons and tons of phone calls, emails, and meetings prior to the event from groups of people all working their hardest to put on that festival for everyone. This is a subject Miles Barker knows all about.

One of Toronto’s largest arts festivals is TCAF (Toronto Comics and Arts Festival) The first TCAF was held on the weekend of March 29th 2003 with roughly 600 people in attendance. From there it ran every two years since 2003 and in 2010 it became a yearly festival. Since taking over as Managing Director of TCAF in 2010, Baker was able to talk about the planning, execution and aftermath of the festival as well as what is next for this beloved festival.

 

Planning

Rogues Portal (RP): How many people are involved in the planning of this festival?

Miles Baker (MB): We have around a dozen involved throughout the year, have about six to eight people that come to our weekly meetings. In the meetings we have leading up to the event they are usually about any updates, or any issues that need to be dealt with. Many hands make light work.

RP: When does planning for TCAF begin?

MB: We are always planning for TCAF whether it is for this year, next year or even two years from now. Constantly thinking about what extra projects we want to do or which guests we want to have. For example, in 2015 we already knew that in 2017 we were going to have a German exhibition.

The day after TCAF ends we are already have all the organizers here, so it is a perfect time to plan for next year and the year after. We have a summary meeting, report on what worked well this year and what we could do better for next year.

As many people can imagine, March and April are our busiest months getting ready for the festival. We are at a size now in terms of planning where everyone doesn’t need to do everything. We can split up the jobs and have one person in charge of getting all the exhibitors and someone else in charge of the grant applications. It definitely helps not having to worry about getting every aspect done and even being able to pay someone for something if need be.

One thing that helps is working with other international festivals, in terms of scheduling so we don’t schedule festivals at the same time or book artists when they are already scheduled for other festivals. It also helps in getting different artists and writers from around the world because they already know us from other festivals.

Planning is essential for everyone involved including the publishers who sometimes know two years in advance about new books they want to have at TCAF in two years.

RP: What are some things you need to plan for or consider for the festival that people would never think about?

MB: I think one thing people don’t really think about is how much support TCAF receives from the publishers. With exhibitors who want to come, if any of them have a new book out, they tend to rank higher over other exhibitors who don’t just because there will be some hype about the new book debuting. Sometimes we get exhibitors or certain artist or writers to come if they have a new book or not just because they do really well.

One thing that people may not think about is the money. Even though it is a free to attend festival, there is quite a bit of money involved. Most of the bigger festivals or cons are run by companies, corporations or have big sponsors or investors but TCAF doesn’t operate like that. We need to look at how much money we have, how much we need to get through our sources. Applying for grant applications and getting them in on time is one way but the grant applications really is only a small part of our funding. A big part of our funding comes from exhibitors paying for tables and advertising as well which is another way TCAF runs off the support of the publishers.

I feel people may underestimate a bit the amount of consideration and planning that goes into planning with our off-site venues. It is nice when you have been working with the same venues for a while now since you know what to expect from each other. This is our 9th year holding it at the library, 7th year at the Marriott, last year was the first year at the Masonic Temple and it worked out well, but working with a new venue always takes the most amount of work. It takes the most work because you don’t know what to expect from each other and over the years we learn what they can and can’t do for us.

RP: Every year the festival grows, how do you expand a festival like this?

MB: When planning it and thinking about expanding, we want to keep the library as our anchor for the festival, but grow through the neighborhood. Even being able to expand inside the library helps as well. Last year we were able to move some tables from the first floor to the third floor and have some more writers or artists on that floor really helped the flow of movement. Expanding to new venues does take a lot of work, but are worth it for future festivals after they know what to expect from us. Last year we had 20,000 people. Some people have suggested that we move out of the library into a bigger facility but I think if we moved from the library it would change a lot of the things people love about the festival. Always looking for new venues to get people to sign at to give people room to breathe so not everyone is crowded in one building or one area, for example last year with Brain K Vaughn. 400 people waited in the rain for him, while we didn’t want our guests to wait in the rain, having him sign off-site meant that the library had room. We might add a new venue this year, but not sure yet.

RP: Do you always contact artists to come or have any artists contact you to be at the festival?

MB: Usually both. The applications open on August first, we get enough people through there, but occasionally we get some exhibitors coming to us asking to be part of the event because they have a new book, or they draw in a huge crowd like Brian K. Vaughan. We try and get people who have a significant body of work, any book products. We don’t want people who don’t have any original work or just have prints of other superheroes. While we have nothing against artists who only do prints of other superheroes, we try and curate it so our guests all have original work. We often try and pair up artists or writers with other people they may have worked together in the past or just would be an interesting combination to see on stage or on a panel. One thing we need to consider is getting a good guest list that people are excited about to see. We try and get a diverse set of people as much as possible, we don’t want it to be all just old white dudes.”

RP: How many artists/authors are expected to attend this year?

MB: Almost 500 this year from 15 different countries.

RP: How many staff and volunteers do you have facilitating the festival?

MB: Around 200 throughout the three days of the festival.

RP: What do you do to ensure it goes smoothly before the event?

MB: The week before the event, I am on the phone and emails, making sure everything is booked and ok. Week of is the last time I can make any changes or fix anything. On the Friday I can wait and see if it succeeded or not.

Execution

With all the years the festival has been running, all the months of planning and all the volunteers helping out, it all leads up to that one weekend. Baker tells us his typical schedule for the weekend of the festival.

Friday
I start the day by hanging posters from previous years, banners, directional signage. Have exhibitors ship their books to The Beguiling if they want ahead of time. We get those books shipped to the library, and have our team of volunteers start sorting them all. We have three series of events that are going on throughout the day so I usually check on them a few times to ensure they are going smoothly. Around 6 or 7 pm, the kickoff event starts and we are still sorting books.

Once the library closes at 8:30 p.m. That’s when the full setup begins. We put up all the tables, all the tablecloths, and all the chairs. After the tables are setup we start hauling all the boxes to the artists or exhibitor’s tables. It usually takes about three hours to set everything up. Then the exhibitors come in at about midnight and set up their tables. There is also a kickoff party that night as well.

Saturday
I get in an hour before the doors open. Saturday is usually solving problems and answering questions. Sometimes there will be space issues between the tables, or accidentally booked two exhibitors at the same table. I usually have an extra table as backup for any unexpected issues. Sometimes there will be issues where boxes haven’t arrived yet or been misplaced and I need to sort that out. I need to make sure I know everything going on and be aware of everything. The opening two hours feel like the longest two hours of the whole festival. I have all the adrenaline running through my body it goes by in a flash. Around 9 a.m. I usually start worrying about the other venues. Mostly Saturday is dealing with issues as they arrive, solving stuff that you might have missed before, and ensure that things are going smoothly.

Sunday
On Sunday, most issues are all sorted. Sometimes there are things I can tweak that I think of Saturday night, like how to improve some issues someone might have had the day before. Usually small things here and there. The festival ends at 5 p.m. and the Page and Panel and Beguiling will buy some product that wasn’t sold, we will exchange money for Americans who got Canadian money for the weekend. After everyone leaves, we need to get all the stock out, either back to the Beguiling or to the exhibitors. Need to get all the tablecloths and tables packed up and ready for pickup, banners and sign down. It usually takes about two to three hours to make the library presentable. We also need to get all the offsite events packed up and plan the route for the trucks to pick up everything from the library and off site events. We are lucky to get enough volunteers back to help with the tear down.

Monday
The Monday after we have a lot of follow ups with practically everyone. First and foremost, need to make sure to pay everyone and that everyone got paid. Thank everyone for attending, thank the volunteers for all their hard work. Hear complaints from people in person and online. Ensure all the guests made their flights on time. Going through all the product that we have and already planning for next year. Looking at what next year might look like, any anniversaries we might have to consider or would want to do something for. It really is a never ending process.

A bit of a bittersweet moment when the festival is over, sad that I have to wait a whole year until the next one, but it is a big sense of relief when it is over. It’s going to happen no matter what and the most I can hope is that when it is over I can feel proud about it.

 

Reflecting on TCAF

RP: How did TCAF start helping out with VanCAF come about?

MB: The festival director of VanCAF was thinking about stepping down but didn’t want VanCAF to end. She asked some members from TCAF to help out and be on the board of directors for VanCAF. Some people may see it as a merger but it’s not a merger, just some members from TCAF helping them out.

RP: What are your biggest concerns for the festival?

MB: Biggest concern is the pedestrian traffic flow, making sure that it is not too cramped. Biggest issue and my own personal pet peeve is people standing on the stairs. I understand why people stand on there, wanting to get a good view, but you are blocking it for other people to get up or down. That is the only set of stairs to get between the floors. My other major concerns for the festival is making sure there is enough space between the tables so people can walk between them openly, managing the lineups so that they don’t interfere with other lineups or people trying to enjoy the event and not having to dodge all the lineups.

RP: What is the most enjoyable part for you?

MB: Mostly just meeting all the people, hearing all the positive things about TCAF. It’s fun seeing all the concept art for the festival posters before the festival. It’s great running the festival with people you know and sharing the experience of it all. I enjoy running the festival, seeing all the planning coming to fruition. Obviously running the event I don’t get to walk the event like I used to but I get to enjoy it and experience it differently.”

RP: What makes TCAF unique?

MB: It is still a festival, we have a series of events that is around a medium. Week of activities from Wednesday to Sunday. Some people may think of it as a con but I think what really separates us is the curation when we go through all the exhibitors. We make sure they are not just selling fan art, we don’t have anything against fan art, but want to ensure our exhibitors have something unique or interesting. We have a bit more freedom but are also limited in who we get to have, but that just adds to our uniqueness. We have the freedom to choose people who have diverse characters and come from a wide range of different backgrounds whereas at most cons they usually have people from the big companies where the characters or backgrounds may not be as diverse. We don’t have any huge name celebrities that people would be willing to wait all day for, but the people who come to TCAF do so to see people who may not make that many appearances at festivals if any.

RP: What advice do you have for other people who want to do a con or festival?

MB: Find other people to work with, you can’t do it all on your own. Make sure your aisles are the widest possible. Think of how you want to do it differently than other festivals. Look at what works for other festivals and be flexible, things will not always work out the way you had planned and need to be able to adjust to that.

RP: Do you ever get a chance to meet artists you are excited about or are you too busy?

MB: Both. There are definitely times when there are people that I want to see but can’t because I am too busy dealing with issues or something. Depending on the day and how it is going I will try and make time to see certain artists or writers that I am excited about. Biggest thing that happened to me that I will never forget is Art Spiegelman patted me on the back one time.

TCAF is running this year on Saturday May 13th from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday May 14th from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and as always, is free to attend.

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