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Hillside Festival has a new executive director

Kate Johnston is the new executive director, taking over from Marie Zimmerman
Hillside Festival’s new executive director, Kate Johnston.

Guelph’s popular three-day summer event has a new executive director.

Hillside Festival’s current volunteer program manager, Kate Johnston took over the position form longtime director Marie Zimmerman last September.

After 14 years, Zimmerman moved on to another not-for-profit organization, helping to develop festivals and attractions across the province.

Securing over 50 partners, Zimmerman led numerous community engagement projects and brought in four million dollars in grants, donations, and sponsorships. 

Aware that she has some big shoes to fill, Johnston is thrilled to bring over 20 years of experience in arts and culture management to her new role, as well as a passion for music and community.  

“Marie did spearhead some really amazing projects and redesigned so much of what the festival is, as well as the aspects that make it so unique,” Johnston said.

“I hope to continue the work that she has done and also adapt as we go into the future of the festival.”

Johnston has an honours degree in music from the University of Toronto and a graduate degree in arts administration from Western University. 

She has worked in various roles including artistic director, theatre manager, marketing manager, and manager of visitor services.

“I’m an arts administrator and I come from a music festival background. I was the artistic director of Goderich Celtic Roots Festival, and I have worked in administrative roles for a number of different festivals across Canada, as well as in the UK,” Johnston said.

“With my arts administration background, and being an artistic and musical person myself, I have that artistic perspective that helps and fosters that creative spark over the weekend.”  

Johnston says she knows what it takes to pull together an event of this size.

“I look forward to managing our wonderful staff, getting all of the volunteers together, and making sure everything is where it needs to be," she said.

Johnston says what she most excited about, is being part of such an amazing legacy event in Guelph.

“Hillside is going to be celebrating its 41st festival this summer. It’s an incredible community of people who attend, particularly those who volunteer every year,” she said.

“There’s four decades of ingenuity and creativity and community mindedness that you can see. As soon as you are there, you see it. And that’s because of the creativity of the volunteers. It really is amazing to be part of that.”

Johnston says the music festival would not be what is it is today without the over 1,300 volunteers that come back year after year.

“I do believe, having travelled in different places and having worked for different festivals, that Hillside really does have a unique and amazing volunteer program. We don’t need to advertise. People just want to come out and be part of it,” Johnston said.

“Being someone who appreciates art and music and knowing what it does for people, what we saw through COVID-19 is that art and music give our lives meaning and can help us feel connected to people,” Johnston said.

“It’s one thing to be watching a musician perform on Zoom through the pandemic, but when we are all together, in one space, there are physical health benefits to being in one place and experiencing something together. Our limbic systems calm down and our nervous systems calm down. There’s a lot of demonstrable benefits to taking part in experiences like this.”

Johnston says the Hillside Festival is an amazing example of what people can achieve when they do come together.

“Volunteers work throughout the year to pull it together. It's really amazing that people can coordinate and do something that culminates in this weekend of community experience,” Johnston said.

Johnston says people often talk about the ‘atmosphere’ of Hillside.

"It’s a place of caring and a there’s a village mentality of being a community, and a safe and inclusive space. I think that is starting to be missing more and more in our daily lives,” Johnston said.

“There's something you really feel when you come to Hillside, and that’s why it’s so incredibly special.”