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SPECIAL REPORT: St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre never meant to be profitable

Audience members take their seats during a performance in the early years of the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre’s operations.
Audience members take their seats during a performance in the early years of the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre’s operations.

Constant challenges for cultural facility to prove its worth

The St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre was the province’s major centennial project, built at a cost of about $8 million and opened in May 1967. Although the first show took place that month, the building was officially declared operational in October of that year — 50 years ago. Join The Telegram’s Ashley Fitzpatrick and Tara Bradbury as they explore the history, quirky stories, little-known facts and future of the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre with a three-part project, running today until Tuesday.

 

The St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre was being challenged on costs before it even opened.

Construction started in 1965, but there were significant overruns on the project. By the time of the opening gala in May 1967, with work still ongoing, it was referred to as a possible “white elephant” — expected by critics to cost more than it would ever be worth.

The total bill came in at about $8 million. The Government of Canada picked up only $2.5 million of that cost, leaving $5.5 million to be paid by the province, or more than twice the original expectation.

The building was dynamic, including space for theatre, art galleries, offices, studios for instruction, libraries and a top-shelf restaurant all under one roof, but its success was talked about almost solely in terms of dollars and cents, namely in ticket sales.

 

Exceeding expectations

“It is recognized by the provincial government that the centre’s success will depend on the administrative and promotional ability of whoever operates it,” Globe and Mail reporter Bren Walsh noted in a report on June 24, 1967.

The building became fully operational and was essentially re-launched on Oct. 1, 1967.

By the next year, The Daily News reported the theatre was getting more use than expected, with 103 performances and about 80,000 visitors in a year. The arts centre had become one of the focal points for life in the city, it stated.

The galleries offered more than 30 art exhibitions in a year, including a show featuring the works of internationally renowned sculptor Henry Moore, with people in the province exposed to new artistic approaches and encouraged to consider their own in the context of national and international movements.

Vocational and craft training by the division of the Department of Education — a pre-cursor to the College of the North Atlantic and the Anna Templeton Centre — used studio spaces on the second through fourth floors for weaving, sewing, leathercraft, embroidery and millinery classes. Templeton was directing the courses by their second year.

By then, early criticisms were giving way to a more favourable view of the centre overall.

“(The Arts and Culture Centre) rapidly became a meeting place for all classes and tastes in the capital city and metro area, indeed of the whole Newfoundland community,”

Michael Harrington wrote in the Atlantic Advocate in 1971.

By its 25th anniversary, according to a booklet from the province, the main stage alone had been used for specialty theatre training, summer dinner theatre, tai chi classes, news conferences, public lectures, at least one wedding and, at one point, a court of law.

The libraries were hosting community events, and offices in the centre were used by the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, the Writers’ Alliance, Rising Tide Theatre, the Artists Coalition, Memorial University of Newfoundland Continuing Studies and a variety of other non-profit groups.

 

A network

The opening of the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre was followed by the opening of arts and culture centres in Corner Brook (1968), Grand Falls-Windsor (1971), Stephenville (1975), Gander (built in stages, officially opening in 1977) and Labrador City (1986).

“My thinking is that it was a really progressive thing for the province to do, to own six performing arts centres. I think it’s an amazing thing. It’s still to this day, 50 years later, when people find that out. … It’s a really amazing thing for a government,” said Aiden Flynn, the current manager of programming for the province’s arts and culture centres.

He explained the facilities are now budgeted as a division, under the Department of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation.

“I look at the arts, and I look at these buildings, and I look at everything that’s contributed to the arts community in this province as not just based on what it’s doing dollars and cents wise, but what is it contributing to the fabric of our communities, what is it doing to our social structure, what is it doing for our wellness? There’s intangibles that go along with these things, too, that you can’t just measure in a spreadsheet.”

 

Revues and reviews

Spreadsheets were undeniably part of the centre’s history, though, with regular program and budget reviews. Scrutiny of dollars in and dollars out made headlines in 1991, then again in 1994.

“A sharp budgetary sword hangs over the entire Arts and Culture Centre network,” read a Newfoundland Herald piece in January of that year. The centre in St. John’s was running on a reported $1.3-million deficit at the time.

By 1996, The Evening Telegram (as this outlet was known) reported on culture minister Sandra Kelly asking arts centre managers to take another look. A consultant was called in to consider the future of the arts centres. Kelly said she expected there to be continued funding from the province (a subsidy at the time of $3 million a year went to all six centres). The centres were never meant to make money, she acknowledged, but made it clear there was still pressure to bring operational costs down.

In 2004, with another budget crunch, there was a renewed discussion around seeing more investment in the arts centres from other sources, including municipalities like St. John’s.

“With the province said to be on the brink of financial ruin and the Tory government undertaking a 10 per cent cost-cutting exercise to stem the hemorrhaging, stakeholders are concerned about the future of the centres and who will run them,” Jeff Ducharme wrote in The Sunday Independent.

Four more years and another consultant contract was awarded. Then-minister Clyde Jackman approved $75,000 for ArtExpert.ca to review the operations of the arts and culture centres and develop a strategic plan for the future.

Roll ahead to Budget 2016 and the current Liberal government raised fees on everything from room rentals to ticket printing.

But despite the move, Flynn said the centres — including the centre in St. John’s — has the support of the government.

“I’m really impressed with the support that exists at every level over there,” he said.

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