Future uncertain for The Theatre on King despite widespread support from Peterborough community

City council's recent vote against providing any funding puts Peterborough's only black-box theatre in a precarious situation

Kate Story performing "Spring in Middle" during the Small Dance for a Small Space festival, held at The Theatre On King from March 30 to April 1, 2023. (Photo: Andy Carroll)
Kate Story performing "Spring in Middle" during the Small Dance for a Small Space festival, held at The Theatre On King from March 30 to April 1, 2023. (Photo: Andy Carroll)

Peterborough city council’s recent decision not to provide funding for the unsuccessful candidates for community investment grants has left The Theatre On King (TTOK) reeling and looking back to the community for support as they figure out their next steps.

According to TTOK artistic director Ryan Kerr, while the organization will be able to deliver its previously planned programming through to the end of June, beyond that there are a lot of unknowns.

“My lease is up in the summer and so depending on what happens between now and June, we’ll determine what happens in the future,” Kerr said in an interview with kawarthaNOW. “I also need to talk to my landlord to see how long the lease will be … if it’s going to be a five-year lease or a two-year lease or stuff like that. That will also affect the decision about going forward, because we can’t do this — we can’t live like this for the next five years.”

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However, glimmers of hope for TTOK’s future have emerged in the form of an anonymous donor who has promised to match donations up to $7,500 as well as a commitment from TTOK’s landlord Michael Cherney of Cherney Properties to donate $1,000 to the theatre while challenging other local businesses to do the same.

A petition called ‘Save The Theatre On King: Urge The City of Peterborough to Fund TTOK’ launched on change.org is still available and has received over 1,500 signatures to date.

TTOK is also accepting donations, through Public Energy’s CanadaHelps page, as a charitable trustee of Public Energy Performing Arts.

Despite these promising endeavours and widespread community support, a great deal of uncertainty remains and the prospect of closing the theatre has become a real possibility.

Alongside the uncertainty is a profound disappointment in the majority of council’s unwillingness to see the value in continuing to fund TTOK, leading both Kerr and TTOK’s artistic administrator Kate Story to point out that, given the current funding model and the attitudes of some city councillors, those who received funding this year shouldn’t come to expect to receive funding in subsequent years.

“I feel Theatre On King is of course our immediate priority, but every single person, every single organization that receives money from the City of Peterborough, should pay attention to this conversation,” Story told kawarthaNOW. “There’s absolutely no reason why any of those people who got money this year will get it next year at this point.”

Story points out an organization’s success in receiving municipal funding aids immensely in strengthening applications for funding from other levels of government or private funds. In the case of an organization not being able to demonstrate a track record of successful grants, or if funding is suddenly lost from a particular source, this is seen as a major red flag to other prospective funding sources.

“Last year, we were able to get a Canada Council grant, a project grant,” Story explained. “That was very much because the city had funded us. It keeps our doors open, so we can apply for those project grants but then they see that we have the funding.”

“We have an application in right now for a grant in more of the social services sector, and we had to field a phone call from them saying, ‘So we’ve seen the media, are you guys still viable? Should we continue to consider your application?'”

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These fears and warnings echo concerns expressed by delegates at the city council meeting last Monday (March 27) that saw both TTOK and the Peterborough Artisans Centre formally appeal the decision of the granting committee to deny their applications for funding.

Following the appeals, councillor Matt Crowley introduced a motion — with a friendly amendment by councillor Alex Bierk — to provide $9,500 to the theatre from the city’s contingency fund. While council voted down that motion 7-3, council did vote unanimously in support of Crowley’s motion to instigate a review of the application and assessment process.

However, the idea of a review is proving to be anxiety-inducing for those who perceive the overtly ideological framing of municipal funding for the arts.

“I would say the three progressive people on council want to review it because they want to see fair funding for all sectors,” Story said. “They can sort of see that there’s a problem here. Certainly, the arts are not getting fair funding. And also this sort of threat to operating funding is huge across the sector. So on the left, or whatever you want to call the progressives you see, they want to review the program for that reason.”

The spectre of political or ideological interference in the review looms large for Story. Chief among her concerns is the perception of undue influence over the process due to its not following the arm’s-length granting process followed in other municipalities and at the provincial and federal levels.

Such a process has long been requested by leaders in Peterborough’s arts community. According to Su Ditta, executive director of the Electric City Culture Council (EC3), the current debate circles back to a long-standing request from the city’s Arts, Culture and Heritage Advisory Committee (now called the Arts and Culture Advisory Committee) and EC3 that the city review the program, including separating arts and culture from other sectors such as social services and sports also covered by the community investment grants.

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A report published by EC3 in June 2020 on the topic of best practices concerning the allocation of arts funding in Canada studied eight Canadian municipal arts councils to demonstrate the significance of arm’s-length peer assessment agencies within a municipal framework when allocating arts funding.

In the report’s conclusion, there is a direct called from EC3 for the City of Peterborough to “transfer the administration of the key operating and project grants program … from the City to EC3, following the principles of arm’s-length and peer assessment as best practices” in order to “bring the development and delivery of the City’s arts funding processes in line with those of the federal government, most provincial governments, and many municipal governments.”

When reached for comment on what had transpired at the March 27th council meeting, Ditta called the proceedings and ultimate decision a “slaughter” of the arts in the city of Peterborough.

“Arts and culture in the city has grown since that process was initiated,” Ditta said, before explaining that arm’s-length arts councils, made up of individuals working in the arts and cultural community — or peer assessment — are the “best practice and gold standard” due to their ability to “rigorously assess the impact of an arts organization” within a given community.

“We want to protect the public’s investment,” said Ditta, noting taxpayers expect this funding to sustain the community and the vitality of the organizations it goes toward.

The current application process “is wholly insufficient to seriously adjudicate an arts organization,” Ditta added, while being careful to note that criticizing the process isn’t personal, as some councillors seemed to imply.

Rather, Ditta was adamant that in showcasing the need for more specialized funding streams for arts and culture, councillors, city staff, and committee members would merely be demonstrating that they’ve done such a good job of fostering growth in the sector that now requires more specialized attention and processes.

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When it comes to the city’s grant program, Story sees TTOK as the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” for Peterborough’s arts and culture community. According to Story, part of the problem goes back to the amount of funding allocated for the program — despite a predictable increase in the number of applications and therefore demand from both new and previous recipients.

“There was never a question of ‘Oh look, there’s so many more applicants this year, maybe we need to ask for more in the community granting pot’,” Story said, referring the city’s draft 2023 budget, which was presented to council in December and approved on January 30. “That wasn’t even brought up. There is no one steering the boat.”

“I don’t understand how you could be in charge of something and not care about it. Where’s the stewardship?”