Garden Festival: Arts as the arts should be

LOVE FOR ART: Thousands attended the Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival last year, proof that Hamiltonians aren't yokels and bogans.
LOVE FOR ART: Thousands attended the Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival last year, proof that Hamiltonians aren't yokels and bogans.

 My favourite place in Hamilton is a former dump.

Like many of the good things about this city, the Hamilton Gardens nearly didn't happen. It started out as part of Hamilton East's town belt, which, excellently, turns out to have been used as a rifle range by early settlers. (A period photograph, viewable on the Hamilton Gardens website, shows a number of women in full Sunday dress looking extremely pleased to be shooting at things.) Other uses included dog-dosing, go-carting and sand-quarrying. In the 1960s the nascent Gardens became terrifyingly close to becoming State Highway One, before the Minister of Lands paid a personal visit and allowed the road to be diverted.

What we're left with is an absolute treasure of a place, which, thanks to the fact that it's owned by the Hamilton City Council, belongs to all of us. (This comes with the added side benefit of annoying libertarians.) You don't have to be any kind of green thumbs buff to appreciate the Gardens - they're simply wonderful. On just about any given day, particularly in summer, you can witness people of all ages having a great time, just hanging out. You can play football on the big grass greens, chuck a Frisbee on the Rhododendron Lawn, get ideas for the veggie patch in the Sustainable Backyard, or just stop and smell the roses in the Rose Garden. The best thing about Hamilton Gardens, for me, is the many themed gardens. Wandering around them is like being magically transported to different places and times. Spend long enough there and you can pass through pieces of Japan, China, India, pre-colonial New Zealand, and Tudor England, to name just a few.

So yeah, I like the Gardens. They're cool. I wager nearly all Hamilton residents would agree. So, where am I going with all this? After all, what's the point of an opinion column that nearly everyone, except for those enjoyably annoyable libertarians, can wholeheartedly agree with? Where's the conflict that opinion is supposed to engender?

Well. Partly I just want to say some nice things about a neat place, and congratulate the hard-working people who make it so - you know who you are. But mostly I want to plug the Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival.

Let's see. This year we've got any number of cool things to enjoy. Symphony at the Gardens is kicking things off this year, rather than being the end event. Classical music and fireworks are two great tastes that taste great together, I reckon. I'm looking forward to the Wintec Hot House, a free contemporary musical showcase on the Rhododendron lawn, Battle of the Bastards, a "best of the Toronto fringe"-winning show hacked out of the corpse of King Lear, and The Bitches Box, a play that examines what two bitches on heat would talk about when locked in a box for 20 days. Then there's the stuff that I won't be watching, because I am in it. There's In Extremis, a take on the medieval love story of Abelard and Heloise, and Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. And these are just a few personal highlights. There really is too much good stuff to list.

Hamilton's relationship with the Arts is occasionally tempestuous. Some would have you believe that it is downright antagonistic. The recent conflict over various matters relating to the arts, such as the MESH sculpture outside the Hamilton Museum, revelations of the financial difficulties faced by Hamilton's theatres, and the matter of Hamilton City Council allowing the Meteor theatre to be run by a community trust, has seen a great deal of comment fly about how it's not a city's place to be involved in the Arts at all. There's a chorus of outrage - which, curiously, always seems to come from the shrill mouths and keyboards of the same small group - every time it's revealed that yes, public money is sometimes spent on nice things. The reason most often cited? That no-one is interested in the arts.

The Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival proves all that to be so much bunk.

On any given day of the Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival, you can arrive to full car parks and packed grounds. A carnival atmosphere prevails. Parents bring the kids and the grandparents. Teenagers have gratuitous, noisy fun at everyone and nobody minds a bit. Music is played. Many of the events are free. Some things are contemporary, some classical. Everyone enjoys it. I've had the pleasure and privilege of being involved to some extent in each Gardens Festival for the last few years, and every experience has been wonderful. Everyone just loves it so damn much. It's joyous. It's the arts as the arts should be: inclusive - while still, occasionally, challenging - accessible, and enjoyable for all.

Joshua Drummond is a Hamilton freelance writer and illustrator who can kill houseplants just by looking at them. His website is