Art in spite of all: how the Kawarthas arts community survived the year of the virus

Despite the closure of performance venues and galleries and financial uncertainty, local artists continued to create and inspire

"The Essential Project" photography series by Jules Gagne profiled 20 Peterborough-area artists and their pandemic experiences, including The Theatre On King artistic director Ryan Kerr and theatre artist and writer Kate Story. (Photo: Julie Gagne)
"The Essential Project" photography series by Jules Gagne profiled 20 Peterborough-area artists and their pandemic experiences, including The Theatre On King artistic director Ryan Kerr and theatre artist and writer Kate Story. (Photo: Julie Gagne)

By March 17, 2020 — a day that shall live in infamy — every artisan fair, community space, concert hall, club, festival, gallery, museum, and theatre in the Kawarthas had gone dark, which led to a never-ending list of cancelled cultural events that has since devastated the arts and culture sector.

Like a black hole, from which no light can escape, the pandemic consumed everything in its path; yet, somehow, this year has miraculously seen much incredible work in the arts.

2020, our year of the virus, has also been the year of art in spite of all.

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In the early days of uncertainty, people all over the world turned to the arts — whether they binged-watched Netflix, read books or poems, scrolled through collections of images and inspirational quotations, or listened and danced to music, art made the lockdown bearable.

As much of our lives went online, so too did the arts. Local musicians, poets, dancers, actors, artisans, and visual artists created much online content to keep us inspired and connected during the first lockdown.

Local musicians brought us memorable moments such as the #TogetherAtHome video with Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor and the Peterborough Singers’ virtual choir performance of the song “Bobcaygeon” in support of Pinecrest Nursing Home where COVID-19 claimed the lives of 28 residents. The Live! At the Barn video series safely connected us to our favourite local musicians.

VIDEO: Live at the Barn! featuring The Weber Brothers

Millbrook’s 4th Line Theatre offered online readings, artist talks, and unique theatrical performances over the telephone via 4th Line Theatre @ Home Monologue Series.

Public Energy Performing Arts livestreamed archived performances of theatre, dance, and circus-arts in The Rewind Room, which provided financial support for the featured artists.

Local photographer Julie Gagne documented local citizens and business owners for her portrait series “Within”, which inspired The Essential Project that Gagne created with the Electric City Culture Council (EC3) to raise awareness of the precarious situation of local artists and arts organizations during the pandemic. As part of EC3’s Artsweek SHIFT, local painter John Climenhage chronicled the vacant, ghostly locked-down spaces onto canvases.

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As lockdown restrictions began to lift in the summer, artists found more ways to safely present their work to audiences.

Outdoor performances and festivals such as the Open Spaces Festival, Pivot Series, and 4th Line Theatre’s Halloween show were welcomed back with the warmer weather.

The First Friday Art Crawl safely resumed to celebrate the completion of Peterborough’s newest mural. Galleries such as Artspace and The Art Gallery of Peterborough featured exhibits by appointment and the Apsley Autumn Studio Tour restarted.

Peterborough illustrator Kathryn Durst in front of her public art mural in the alleyway of the Commerce Building in downtown Peterborough. The mural, commissioned by the First Friday Peterborough volunteer committee and Commerce Building owner Ashburnham Realty, was celebrated on September 4, 2020. (Photo: First Friday Peterborough / Facebook)
Peterborough illustrator Kathryn Durst in front of her public art mural in the alleyway of the Commerce Building in downtown Peterborough. The mural, commissioned by the First Friday Peterborough volunteer committee and Commerce Building owner Ashburnham Realty, was celebrated on September 4, 2020. (Photo: First Friday Peterborough / Facebook)

Some local musicians were able to return to work on patios or behind plexiglas in our many clubs, while outdoor performances such as The Verandah Society and drive-in concerts in both Lindsay and Peterborough made the most of the warmer weather while it lasted.

Countless more online performances became available as the colder weather and the second wave of COVID forced us back indoors. Most recently, In From The Cold broadcast and livestreamed on Trent Radio, and the Peterborough Symphony Orchestra’s holiday concert, Comfort and Joy, gave audiences near and far a collective musical experience. Many organizations and individuals turned towards research and development to make sure artists have the safety, security, and time to continue to create their work.

Notably, 4th Line Theatre brought on award-winning artist Beau Dixon to begin developing institutional strategies to deter the systemic discrimination faced by artists who are Black, Indigenous, people of colour, or living with disabilities. Artspace hosted ‘Breaking Down Stereotypes’, photo-based community art project from the First Peoples House of Learning featuring Indigenous students at Trent University. EC3 and Public Energy also demonstrated their commitment to diversity via declarations, programming, and exhibitions.

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Artspace, EC3, and Public Energy all announced artist in residence programs to foster creation during the pandemic, including performer Brad Brackenridge as the 2021 artist in residence at Artspace and poet Justin Million as downtown Peterborough’s first artist in residence — a partnership between EC3, the Peterborough Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA), and Leslie Menagh of Madderhouse Textile Studios.

Fenelon Falls will be the home of a new outdoor amphitheatre and professional theatre company, with plans to produce a summer festival of live performance in 2021.

Against all odds, works of art — across all disciplines — have escaped the black hole that is this godforsaken pandemic. Though it is paramount that we celebrate the remarkable adaptation, improvisation, and resilience required of our local artists to create art in spite of all, we must also recognize that we are at risk of losing our beloved cultural institutions and practitioners.

A maquette of "Portage", a bronze work by Madoc artist James C. Smith, in the Rain Garden south of Maryboro Lodge (home of the Fenelon Museum) in Fenelon Falls. The final sculpture, to be installed in the Rain Garden, is an homage to the location's history as a portage and gathering area of First Nations peoples. It features three life-sized bronze canoe paddle figures participating in a portage. (Photo courtesy of Fenelon Arts Committee)
A maquette of “Portage”, a bronze work by Madoc artist James C. Smith, in the Rain Garden south of Maryboro Lodge (home of the Fenelon Museum) in Fenelon Falls. The final sculpture, to be installed in the Rain Garden, is an homage to the location’s history as a portage and gathering area of First Nations peoples. It features three life-sized bronze canoe paddle figures participating in a portage. (Photo courtesy of Fenelon Arts Committee)

The arts and culture sector — an immense economic driver — is among the hardest-hit in the economy. The situation is dire. For this reason, the most important work that has been done in the arts this year is the oft-invisible, behind-the-scenes administrative and fundraising work.

There have been so many creative fundraising initiatives in support of the arts. From the Lindsay Little Theatre, to the Fenelon Arts Committee, to The Theatre on King, arts organizations are doing what they can to stay afloat.

Artists and arts organizations have made large charitable donations in support of cherished live performance venues, including Peterborough’s LLAADS sketch comedy troupe donating $1,000 to The Theatre on King, Theatre Trent launching a relief fund for Peterborough performance venues, and New Stages Peterborough paying it forward by asking people to purchase tickets for others to attend post-pandemic shows, with proceeds supporting local arts organizations and venues.

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New partnerships were formed among the arts community, such as the Peterborough Performing Arts Recovery Alliance, a group of local performance venues and arts organizations that formed to to advocate, organize, and lobby for support.

The sheer volume of fundraisers is both a testimony to the love for the arts and the generosity of our communities; and, an indication that the financial support available through multiple levels of government is inadequate.

Much like the team of professionals assembled by the Allied forces during WWII for the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (also known as the “Monuments Men”), the Electric City Culture Council (EC3) proved to be champions for the arts here in Nogojiwanong/Peterborough, fighting tirelessly to preserve the arts.

An artist's rendering of the completed outdoor amphitheatre in Fenelon Falls. Although it was planned before the COVID-19 pandemic, the open-air amphitheatre will allow for safe, physically distanced live performances to take place. (Image courtesy of Kawartha Works Community Co-operative)
An artist’s rendering of the completed outdoor amphitheatre in Fenelon Falls. Although it was planned before the COVID-19 pandemic, the open-air amphitheatre will allow for safe, physically distanced live performances to take place. (Image courtesy of Kawartha Works Community Co-operative)

Long before the CERB program was expanded to include artists, EC3 immediately provided urgent, short-term financial support to local professional artists who had experienced the sudden loss of artistic income due to the COVID-19 pandemic by means of Micro Subsistence Grants. They also disseminated crucial information and resources regarding relief funds and grants for artists and arts organizations.

EC3 also worked closely with the Greater Peterborough Chamber of Commerce, the Peterborough Downtown Business Improvement Area (DBIA), and Peterborough & the Kawarthas Economic Development to ensure that artists and arts organizations could participate in vital digital initiatives such as gift card programs and digital marketing consultancy sessions.

Throughout the pandemic, EC3 has been quietly raising funds for the Peterborough Arts Alive Fund which, thanks to Peterborough city councillors Kemi Akapo and Keith Riel, recently saw the City of Peterborough’s Budget Committee pledge to match the $40,000 relief fund.

The Electric City Culture Council (EC3)'s Peterborough Arts Alive fund was established to help charitable arts organizations in the Peterborough area make it through the COVID-19 pandemic. (Graphic: EC3)
The Electric City Culture Council (EC3)’s Peterborough Arts Alive fund was established to help charitable arts organizations in the Peterborough area make it through the COVID-19 pandemic. (Graphic: EC3)

2020, our year of the virus — of art in spite of all — has given us much to celebrate and even more to lament. Though there is hope on the horizon, it seems distant as we brace ourselves to enter 2021 in another lockdown. For better or for worse, we have made it this far and, together, we can make it to the other side.

Together, we can ensure the arts will be ready and waiting on the other side to help us process this collective trauma — that we can return to all of the things that make life worth living.

If you have the means (and if you’d like to get a charitable tax receipt before the end of the calendar year), please consider making a donation to the Peterborough Arts Alive fund, administered jointly by EC3 and the Greater Community Foundation of Peterborough, to help keep the arts alive in Peterborough.

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