Art and commerce in usual positions in Northumberland

First published: January 14, 2006

“A great struggle is taking place outside this mortal temple we call the theatre: art and commerce,” Mrs. Crummles, tells her husband in the movie adaptation of the Charles Dickens’s novel Nicholas Nickleby. “And, it would appear from the receipts, is in its usual position of jeopardy.”

Little has changed since Dickens’ time. Art and commerce are unhappy bedfellows.

While urban centres like Toronto seem to garner the support of politicians and philanthropists, rural areas rarely do. There are a few exceptions like Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, who have turned culture into major economic forces. There are also some good nearby examples like the Westben theatre in Campbellford and the 4th Line theatre company in Millbrook, north of Port Hope.

Northumberland County’s arts community is struggling. Port Hope’s Capitol Theatre is under financial pressure. After a major expansion, the historic movie house is working hard to be a major regional arts centre. The Northumberland Players experienced a brush with financial ruin after it could barely afford to purchase rights to scripts because it was so cash strapped. Northumberland Orchestra was on life support only a year ago when it’s lacked sufficient money. And, the closure of the Alcatraz, a popular hang out for teenagers, means another place for youth culture is gone.

The importance of local culture cannot be underestimated. Art is the soul of any person and, by extension, the community. Certainly, music, fine art, dance, theatre are all components, but so are architecture, historic buildings, museums and the like. These are supported by vital institutions like galleries (both public and private), studios, theatres, movie houses and so on.

Sadly, the is a lack of political leadership is painfully apparent. Barnum House Museum felt the sharp knife of fiscal cutbacks when county council withdrew its support more than a decade ago. Before this, the county supported a curator and programs. But then it yanked its cord and turned the museum over to a local board.

Cobourg’s weak record on preservation of historic buildings is sinful as residents watched the Lydia Pinkham building and the St. Michael’s Rectory fall under the wrecker’s ball, along with the pitiful Mr. Sub building on King Street.

Throughout the county, developers offer uninteresting, drab buildings that are more boring than exciting. A keystone over a window is far from imaginative.

But culture does not need to be stuck in the past. And while there are groups like the La Juenesse choir, the youth orchestra and young people’s theatre, where are the venues for up and coming rock bands to play? Culture in Northumberland tends to focus on the higher, finer forms of art, but does little to formally develop talent, particularly emerging artists and artisans both young and old.

Far too often, arts and culture is viewed in economic terms. Most politicians refer to the cultural “industry”, as if its only function is to generate revenue by attracting tourists. Rarely will an organization be supported only for its own sake and the contribution it makes to the local community. Arts build social capital, the activities that build the people in any area. And, because the focus for policy is a self-supporting model, groups are left to vigorously compete for limited dollars from governments at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. This creates an unhealthy rivalry between groups and unstable finances for organizations.

Robert Putnam, in Making Democracy Work, observed the number of choral societies per capita could measure the responsiveness of the Italian regional governments. Now, this is not saying more choirs are going to give us better government. But, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University takes this stuff pretty seriously. In its Better Together report, academics see the arts as one means to get people off their couches and coming together in a uniquely pleasant way and, through this contact, set up important network that, in turn, provide vital links. These links are the basis of civic engagement. The more people participate in their community, the more likely they are to be involved in civic life, say the experts.

Political scientists know the more trust and reciprocity exists between citizens, the greater the social capital. This social capital contributes to health, wealth, tolerance and efficient governance. Those who dismiss the arts as non-essential, fail to realize the direct benefits it has on education, criminal reform, youth at risk and community healing, among others.

With so many arts organizations struggling, it is time for a strategic plan for the arts led by the county. The petty fiefdoms of the past must disappear and a larger vision must replace the old one. Rather than each community compete against the others and each arts/cultural organization fighting for dollars, a single West Northumberland solution must be developed. The city of Toronto adopted a 10-year plan for its arts and culture organizations with the first progress report being released last month. The city invests about $15 per person into the arts and, in return, receives about $8 billion back. Certainly, economies of scale are a factor, but the case is significant.

Quality of life is more than building houses and pushing a business agenda. And while council agendas are filled with planning items and wringing hands over the local economy, it is time local arts culture got more time and the greater attention it deserves.

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