The art in community: Does Kawartha Lakes support culture as well as it could?

By Nancy Payne

The art in community: Does Kawartha Lakes support culture as well as it could?

Susan Taylor’s plea on behalf of the Lindsay Gallery at a 2014 city council meeting was a success. Sort of. Yes, some councillors had balked at giving money to the arts, but they ultimately waived the gallery’s rental fees and provided an emergency grant of $3,300 a month to keep the doors open.

“We got what we wanted, but it wasn’t a good business model,” said Taylor, executive director of what is now the Kawartha Art Gallery. “I realized there had to be a better way to do this. It wasn’t a sustainable solution — we’d be back where we started from in three years.”

It was a familiar pattern. Arts and culture organizations in Kawartha Lakes would hang in until the shoestring frayed to the breaking point, then plead with council for last-ditch funding. After the many townships and settlements of the old Victoria County amalgamated in 2001, “there were other priorities, so I don’t think our arts, culture and history organizations necessarily got the attention they deserved,” Fenelon Falls councillor Doug Elmslie said.

By comparison

It’s impossible to pinpoint how Kawartha Lakes stacks up when it comes to supporting culture, but a glance at other municipalities is illuminating. Northumberland County (population 86,000) has invested more than $3 million to build a new county-owned long-term care facility in Cobourg that will house the municipality’s local museum and archives. The municipality of Dysart (6,300) owns and runs the Haliburton Highlands Museum. Tiny Minden Hills (6,100) operates a municipal cultural centre that includes an art gallery, museum and heritage village alongside a nature centre and library.

And then there’s Peterborough, which admittedly has a more concentrated population with greater access to public transit. An arm’s-length, city-backed organization, the Electric City Culture Council or E3, runs bursaries, training programs, an annual Artsweek and just created a new poet laureate post. The city itself spends more than a million dollars to run its art gallery, and museum and archives.

Kawartha Lakes, by contrast, provides no consistent annual operational funding for arts or culture organizations, other than the $13,500 it gives the museum it owns and operates, Maryboro Lodge in Fenelon Falls. “The bulk of the cultural activity in this area takes place outside the municipal government,” said Craig Metcalf, general manager of Lindsay’s Academy Theatre.

Looking up

After years of tireless advocacy, often through umbrella organizations such as the Kawartha Lakes Arts Council and the Kawartha Lakes Culture and Heritage Network, the “better way” Susan Taylor pictured is starting to take shape. The Arts and Heritage Trail is giving residents and visitors alike a way to explore local culture. The work of Donna Goodwin, the economic development department’s arts and culture officer, is widely praised. And in its biggest step in decades, council adopted a 10-year cultural master plan in February 2020.

Based on the plan’s recommendations, the city has hired an archivist and is creating a job description for another position to be filled in 2021: a curator who will work with local museums, ideally helping them qualify for grants otherwise unavailable because they don’t have permanent staff.

“That’s what small museums can’t do. They don’t have the income,” said Beverly Jeeves, director of communications for the Culture and Heritage Network. The decision to hire a shared curator was not universally popular, though; Lindsay’s Olde Gaol Museum had requested city funding for a full-time curator of its own, and others questioned whether one person could effectively support so many museums and historical societies.

The city also faces some lingering pre-amalgamation us-vs-them sentiment, and occasional suspicion of anything seen as reducing local control. “If you lived in any other community, there’d be one (former) train station, but here we have five train stations that people want to keep,” said Janet Tysiak, a volunteer executive member at the Fenelon Station Gallery.

The case for culture

Would it really matter if there were no murals or artisans’ market in Kinmount, the Pontypool grain elevator sat neglected, and the Bobcaygeon Music Council never ran another concert? The cultural master plan estimates the cultural sector employs 527 people in Kawartha Lakes, and that every dollar of municipal investment generates somewhere between $3.70 and $11.70 for the community.

Sarah Quick and James Barrett, co-founders of Globus Theatre.

“It’s an economic driver, it’s a tourism driver. The arts are not a self-indulgent thing,” said Sarah Quick, artistic director and co-founder with husband James Barrett of Globus Theatre and the Lakeview Arts Barn near Bobcaygeon.

“People don’t understand that it’s incredibly labour-intensive to run a museum but the profits don’t come back to us — they go to other businesses in the community,” said Barbara Doyle, the Olde Gaol’s volunteer manager. For example, more than half of the people who took in the annual fall studio tour in 2018 came from outside Kawartha Lakes; 31 per cent were from the Greater Toronto Area. Those visitors didn’t pay admission but did eat lunch, buy gas and browse shops.

Inside the Academy Theatre in Lindsay.

“There’s a greater value than just dollars and cents,” said the Academy’s Metcalf. Performances, exhibitions and experiences build a stronger community. “It just creates a better place to live.” A 2019 study by Community Foundations of Canada found that people who rate their community’s arts, culture and leisure as “excellent” are almost three times more likely to feel a strong sense of belonging, especially in rural areas. Canadians who take in the arts frequently volunteer twice as often as those who don’t, and their physical and mental health are better.

Venues like the Academy, Globus, Lindsay Little Theatre or Fenelon’s new Grove Theatre provide a chance to explore music, dance or acting, and to form new friendships. Museums, galleries and heritage sites give residents a place to share their stories and newcomers a place to learn them. “It’s important because there are people like me, who go back four generations in the village, and there are also a lot of residents who have been part of the exodus out of Toronto and area,” said Ian Burney of the Kirkfield Historical Society, which operates a museum in the former Presbyterian church. “It’s important that we record some of this history before it’s lost.”

From planning to action

Amid its ambitious recommendations, the cultural master plan observes, “Cultural sector organizations are operating at the peak of their current abilities. Most are run by hard-working volunteers who do not have formal or professional training … The sector cannot grow beyond its current level of success without addressing these core operational issues.”

Maryboro Lodge in Fenelon Falls.

Grant programs and corporate donors typically fund one-off programs but not day-to-day expenses. “You can get business sponsors, you can get government grants, but none of it is going to cover your core funding,” said Glenn Walker, Maryboro’s curator.

Summer students or short-term contractors depart when the grant ends. It falls to volunteers to create programming, care for artifacts, do the hiring and banking, complete endless grant applications and organize creative but labour-intensive fundraisers such as the hugely popular Festival of Trees at Settlers’ Village.

Running a performance or display space, often in a heritage building, is not like running a business. “There’s this idea that if the public really loves something, they’ll fund it. Well, a lot of people locally are struggling. We want them to come in and see what’s here and be inspired and be educated,” said the Olde Gaol Museum’s Doyle.

The lack of a line in the budget obscures the wide-ranging help the city does provide. “Operational funding can come in a lot of different ways — heat, hydro, rent,” said Goodwin. “There are a lot of ways that the municipality supports organizations that use municipal buildings.”

For instance, the city offsets utility costs for the Olde Gaol, is building an accessible entrance at Maryboro Lodge and helps maintain the Fenelon Station Gallery. “Last year they put brand-new toilets in. Those things mean a lot to us,” said Tysiak.

Problems can arise fast and cause major damage; a flood at one building might bump an overdue paint job, so volunteers often tackle the work themselves. Repairs and maintenance are generally done by the parks, recreation and culture division, which is also responsible for everything from arenas to cemeteries.

Municipal budgets are finite and tax increases are unpopular. “There’s no end of places to put money,” Elmslie said. “It’s a balancing act. We have to preserve our heritage, but we have to fix our roads, too.”

Lately, he said, culture “has taken a much more front and centre position than it had in the past. The cultural master plan is a huge step because once it gets written down and once it gets adopted by council, that’s a road map.”

Looking ahead

The plan’s vision statement describes a time when “Kawartha Lakes is widely known for its thriving cultural sector,” one that is “well-resourced” enough to attract provincial and federal funding Although “there’s not a pot of money associated with the plan,” Goodwin said, the journey is well underway, thanks to the addition of new staff, a cultural route planning tool to be introduced once travel resumes, and plans for outdoor music events, murals, a sculpture garden and more.

Federal recovery funding topped up by council was welcomed in a sector walloped by the pandemic, but Globus Theatre co-owner Quick said the truly special part was Mayor Andy Letham coming to listen and learn. “It felt really good. I’m really hoping that this turns a little corner in people understanding our role in this region and this community.”

Those involved in arts and culture locally are watching closely to see the details of the cultural master plan’s broad directions. “Sometimes the most important parts of those plans are the reports that outline the actual implementation,” said Metcalf.

Of particular interest is the possibility of municipal funding for day-to-day operations. “Staff have been directed to bring options forward for inclusion in the 2022 budget discussions,” Goodwin said.

Culture and heritage groups have seen the value in presenting a more consistent message to the city. “A councillor once told me the city of Kawartha Lakes is a community of communities,” Jeeves said. Her group is working on ideas like an overall needs list for city-owned buildings used by cultural organizations, and a passport visitors could get stamped at destinations around the municipality. “I think that’s our role, to make sure we’re talking to one another.”

Although next year’s municipal election could upend the city’s priorities, there’s already been huge progress, Taylor said. “The reception to the conversation and the advocacy has been so positive. I honestly consider that we’re very fortunate in our community that we have a council that you can email and they will reply to you personally.”

It’s a time for optimism, she added, even though provincial funders often overlook small rural arts groups. “We have such a wealth of natural assets, cultural assets, our people. We get penalized for being small, but by God we’re special.”

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