Funding woes jeopardize arts centre’s future

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KILLARNEY — The colourful posters stuck to the front door of the Heritage Home for the Arts suggests the arts centre is a busy place.

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KILLARNEY — The colourful posters stuck to the front door of the Heritage Home for the Arts suggests the arts centre is a busy place.

They advertise classes for working with pastels and watercolours, and workshops on exploring maps as an art form, traditional Ukrainian easter egg decorating, and cooking the Ukrainian easter bread, paska. Another poster announces an upcoming performance at the town’s arena by award-winning folk and roots duo The Small Glories.

As much as there is going on at the arts centre run by the Killarney Turtle Mountain Arts Council, five years after it opened it faces possible closure due to its financial position, and its closure would spell the end for the arts council.

It’s the thought of losing the intangible benefits the council and centre provide — a place for people to learn an art, a space where youth can express themselves, a venue for activities and music that gives residents a reason to leave their homes and socialize — that upsets the art council’s arts administrator, Jane Ireland.

“The people who do come out to all of our events, I just see their faces when I think about this … I’m getting teary-eyed … I can’t imagine taking this away from them. I think it would be a real loss, and I think it would be really sad,” Ireland said during a recent interview at the arts centre.

“And the youth, too … the thought of them not having another option out there would just kill me.”

Ireland said the arts council’s goal is to bring the arts in all its forms to the community and give all Killarney residents a chance to learn the art of their choice, while mentoring people with similar interests in the process.

The Home for the Arts, housed in a heritage home built in 1915, is where that work happens. There, residents of all ages have attended lessons in painting, drawing, mixed media, ceramics, filmmaking and even knife-sharpening. Wednesday classes focus on youth.

Fees are charged for the classes, but Ireland said the goal is to break even or make a little money without the cost preventing people from taking part.

“We want everybody to have that opportunity, especially youth,” Ireland said. “Because there’s a lot of young people who, they’re not into sports and this is a big sports town, and it’s great, like hockey and curling and all of that, but there’s some kids who that’s not their interest, right? So it’s really nice to be able to offer something different.”

The arts centre also gives local artists a place for expression they might not otherwise have. Ireland said she has had no problem booking exhibitions featuring local artists even though Killarney itself only has a population of about 2,500.

“It’s amazing how many people we have here that nobody knew were artists,” she said. “They get an artistic voice. It’s wonderful.”

In a room on the second floor of the arts centre, Killarney Wood Carvers member Tim Lawson has been working on a carving of a downy woodpecker made of basswood.

Lawson said he has always enjoyed woodworking, but when he retired from teaching at the Killarney school he no longer had access to its shop. He wanted to keep working with wood, and at the suggestion of a fellow group member, Keith Letts, whose bird carvings he admired, Lawson decided to take up the hobby himself.

While he describes himself as “not artistic at all,” he has now carved about 40 birds for his own enjoyment and as gifts for family members.

“For me, it’s just something to do during the winter when I’m not outside and it’s just very relaxing,” Lawson said. “It’s just such an awesome hobby. Challenging and meticulous kind of work.”

While Lawson now has his own workshop at home, attending the club at the arts centre allows members to share ideas and see each other’s work. Losing the arts centre, and access to its natural light, would mean losing the perfect venue for the carving group.

Besides the workshops and classes, the arts council promotes the music of local emerging artists and professionals alike. Its performing arts series brings in three to four concerts per year. There are also coffee house sessions at the Oak and Owl Cafe that gives a stage to aspiring artists.

The summer Music on the Porch series, so named because performances are on the arts centre’s wrap-around porch, features local artists or those touring on a grant so the arts council doesn’t have to pay them. Admission is typically for a donation.

The council partners with the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba and other arts councils to share resources. It works with other arts councils through the Manitoba Arts Network to secure performers at bulk rates, so to speak. When councils in various communities team up to offer an artist a tour, it reduces the performance fees they pay.

Ireland said that strategy worked well when small towns recently scored a big-name act in the form of Jim Cuddy of Blue Rodeo and his son, Sam Polley. While Cuddy played in Winnipeg, he also performed in Killarney, Minnedosa and Flin Flon.

The annual Sights and Sounds Arts and Music Festival rounds out the arts council’s busy schedule.

But while there doesn’t seem to be any lack of interest in the arts in Killarney and the surrounding area, Ireland said the centre is in financial trouble.

The Killarney Turtle Mountain Arts Council has an operating budget of about $50,000 per year, Ireland said, but it doesn’t receive a provincial grant that other older arts councils get. The provincial government froze operating funds for arts councils several years ago, which Ireland said means those councils that do get operating funds haven’t seen an increase and newer arts councils, those about 15 years or younger, don’t get an operating grant at all.

The arts council receives a $5,000 per year grant from the municipality, which also rents the heritage home to the arts council at the nominal rate of $1 per year.

There is some income from concerts and performing arts, but not the Sights and Sounds festival as it hasn’t grown enough to provide income yet, Ireland said.

There’s also some income from fees for arts workshops, but only donations are accepted to view exhibitions at the arts centre as the council wants to keep them accessible. Those donations cover a $150 honorarium paid to artists.

The council’s work is also buoyed by sponsorships from local businesses, which Ireland said have been loyal since the arts council began, and they make performing arts events profitable. Those events are also supported by federal Canadian Heritage funding.

But expenses outweigh the income, Ireland said. Expenses such as heat and hydro for the building. Ireland is paid $25,000 per year based on a 30-hour work week (she works far longer hours), and she’s the centre’s only paid staff member.

“Everything else is volunteer-run, bless them,” Ireland said. “Because, there’s a lot we do and the volunteers make it happen. If I didn’t have them, we wouldn’t be doing half the things we’re doing.”

While the council isn’t in debt, Ireland said the board has given itself until December 2024 to increase its funding source and reach break-even status. Otherwise, the council will fold and the Home for the Arts will cease to be.

“To do something like this in a community, you have to have that community support,” Ireland said. “And if we’re not getting that community support maybe that means it’s not sustainable. Maybe it means that, unfortunately, the very dedicated following we do have, it might not be enough.”

Securing donations from small businesses is competitive and there’s only so much they can give, Ireland said, so she doesn’t want to lean more on those sources to boost funding.

The arts council already hosts fundraisers and it is making new efforts to generate income, Ireland said. Members of the public can rent rooms at the historic Home for the Arts, which is a licensed facility. Rooms and even floors can be rented for such occasions as wedding socials, bridal showers and business events.

Across the hall from where the carving group meets, the arts room is adorned with the colourful painting and drawings of members of the Killarney Art Group.

Janet, who asked that her last name not be used, was preparing to set to work on a graphite drawing. She said the arts centre provides a supportive place for artists who wish to learn a variety of mediums.

Having never studied art since elementary school but inspired by an uncle who was an artist, Janet took up painting and drawing a few years ago after retiring from banking. She has since begun helping to teach art to youth and enjoyed seeing their progress.

She doesn’t want to see the place that has provided her a sense of accomplishment shut down.

“I would hate to see it close, I really would,” she said. “Because there’s just so much that happens here. We need the arts more than we realize.”

» ihitchen@brandonsun.com

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