By Dan White – Special to the Sydenham Current
It seems that arts and culture are under siege in Ontario!
I know it’s a big dramatic opening line, but seriously, let me tell you what I have heard, know, and think from events over the last few weeks.
As I noted a few weeks ago, the plan for the south side of the Sydenham development was woefully inadequate, even misleading, in its representation of what it will offer to this community in arts and culture.
The Jeanne Gordon Hall was referred to as a theatre, but it cannot be used as such.
There was a reference to a band shell being created in the new plan, but that was a misnomer as the actual space was simply an elevated slab of unprotected concrete.
While the developer from Toronto seemed to be listening, it remains a concern that sports and recreation are seen as paramount while arts and culture is an afterthought.
They both enhance the quality of life of any community, why are arts and culture so often seen as the ugly stepsister being offered scraps after the meal is complete?
I am the chair of the CK Arts and Culture Network, an arts council that seeks to foster and promote all arts and culture across the municipality.
Our board was recently invited to a meeting with Nustadia Recreation Inc., a consulting and development firm based in Hamilton that is working with the developers who are creating the Community Hub in Chatham where the mall currently sits. Nustadia has a long list of accomplishments/developments which include: 31 ice sheets, 12 community rooms, 12 food & beverage establishments in recreation facilities (operated & leased spaces), 9 outdoor artificial turf playing fields, 7 indoor playing fields, 6 Retail Sport outlets (leased spaces), 5 Gymnasiums, 4 Beach Volleyball Courts, 2 Walking tracks, Several outdoor playing fields and multiple ball diamonds, A wide range of other facilities.
The meeting included representatives from the CK Museum and Thames Art Gallery. The team that led the presentation was completely aware that it had no experience developing or representing arts and culture in any of its previous projects, yet they did not hire a consultant with that skill set to guide them in a proposed move of CKM and TAG. The proposal we viewed would see the museum and art gallery diminished in square footage by over 50%. The museum and art gallery will be rendered incapable of offering the services that all residents of CK currently benefit from, and there is a glaring omission in the mention of what would happen to the Kiwanis Theatre.
Now, readers in Wallaceburg may be thinking, “Dan, please! This is a Chatham thing. Why the heck do I care?” I would argue that it is far more significant than an area-specific oversight in planning. The Kiwanis is the home of Theatre Kent, which is currently the only community theatre group I know of in CK (with a nod to the small venue in Thamesville). It is the only intimate venue available and (somewhat) affordable space to present a production. Even if there is a theatre planned for Wallaceburg, we are years from that door opening. The Chatham Cultural Centre is ahead of its time in creating a venue that fosters an arts hub for a community. It has been in existence for decades and offers programming and experiences that benefit more than just residents of that city. Furthermore, the tax dollars that will be used, transferred, allocated to the new space, drawn from the existing venue, are not from Chatham only. We all contribute to that pool of money.
In the end, any loss to arts and culture in one area affects the entire region.
The last stroke of the arts and culture onslaught is far more provincial in scope. Recently, I received an email from the Alliance of Arts Councils of Ontario, a provincial arts organization that I represent for the interests of CK. The Ontario Arts Council was reaching out to all arts councils across the province for advocacy and support. The OAC supports arts, artists, and arts education across the province. The email requested support from all communities in contacting the Ford government, as the Tories are set to reduce the OAC budget by $10 million, or 20% of its annual budget. The OAC is not asking for an increase in funds; they are very aware of the financial challenges of a post-pandemic world. In fact, as the performing arts sector is one of the hardest-hit sectors, it could be argued that they are far more cognizant of the challenges to funding than most.
As with everything in life, we can take note, advocate, and fight for what we believe in, or we can say nothing, leave it to others, and gnash our teeth when we lose what we held dear because our silence allows decision-makers to deem it unimportant.
If you want to have your voice heard on any of these issues, log into https://www.letstalkchatham-kent.ca/ to let your voice be heard regarding arts and culture in your municipality. Contact your local councillors and voice your concerns, contact your MPP to voice your support of OAC, and stay tuned to the CKACN Facebook page for more information and our strategy to raise the voices of arts, artists, and those who appreciate the arts across the region.