Once Red Deer had a plethora of original paintings showing at commercial art galleries, and no less than six theatre groups staging comic, sometimes thought-provoking or controversial productions.
Half a dozen big name performers would come to town, drawing huge crowds to the Centrium each year — and a multitude of chamber and roots music performances would feed niche tastes in smaller venues, such as The Matchbox.
What happened to our once vibrant arts community?
Red Deer was named a Cultural Capital in 2003. But less than a decade later, some people are wondering where has the local cultural scene gone?
It’s a question that’s worth examining as Alberta Culture Days spotlights some of the abundant talent and creativity in our community this weekend.
The last few years have dealt a litany of losses to Red Deer’s arts scene. Not only did the commercial art galleries the bilton and Gallery IS close due to a lack of interest in a slower economy, gone also are the cutting-edge professional productions done by Ignition Theatre. The struggling group called it quits last spring, a year after its cash-strapped venue, the 120-seat Matchbox, folded.
Against the Wall Theatre and Prime Stock Theatre are now offering reduced fare or only sporadic productions.
Central Alberta Theatre, a community mainstay for more than 40 years, is teetering on the brink after taking too much of a financial plunge with the $800,000 City Centre Stage renovation. Reduced to operating in the 60-seat Nickle Studio, CAT can no longer offer dinner theatres and the fate of its season remains hanging.
On the music front, the Blues Conspiracy and Waskasoo Bluegrass Society, which brought various artists to town, have petered out in part because of volunteer exhaustion.
Due to extenuating circumstances (a Centrium arena seating expansion, the happenstance of artist touring schedules and the layoffs of booking staff at the CAT-operated Memorial Centre), there are scant entertainment offerings in the city this fall.
Even the ever-popular Red Deer Symphony Orchestra is in financial straits. Having received about $50,000 less in grants than expected, the RDSO was forced to cancel the Chamber Series and brainstorm for more cost-cutting ideas.
What once seemed like a burgeoning cultural scene sometimes seems like more of a “cultural black hole,” said Mike Bradford, president of the Central Music Festival Society.
He suggested Red Deer citizens should accept some responsibility for the dwindling offerings.
Yes, the economy has declined since the boom of 2005-06, and people have less disposable income in Red Deer, which has a younger population and more single-parent families than the Alberta average. But Bradford knows — after operating the six-year-old outdoor music festival that many locals still don’t realize exists — that Red Deer can be a tough sell for the arts.
“It’s never been easy to program music here,” said Bradford, who has had greater success gauging public tastes in some smaller markets. He suggests Red Deer could be experiencing some growing pains in transforming into a larger city.
Like other players on the local entertainment scene, Bradford has observed that many local residents wait until the last minute to buy tickets — unless it’s a huge act like Jerry Seinfeld or Elton John. Performers with less name recognition often have trouble drawing crowds — perhaps because people are reluctant to gamble on what they don’t know.
“Perhaps it depends on what people were exposed to while they were growing up, or whether culture was a priority,” added the promoter.
But if Red Deer citizens should be shouldering some blame for the declining arts scene, so should arts organizations that aren’t giving people what they want, said Matt Grue, artistic director of the former Ignition Theatre.
He includes his own defunct theatre group — which deliberately offered plays that were controversial and unconventional — in this assessment.
Grue also includes the more mainstream CAT, which has had trouble tailoring its seasons to what people want to see — the latest example is its sparsely attended corn-pone comedy, Greater Tuna. “People’s personal entertainment options (with social media) are dramatically different at home now. It takes a lot to get people out the door,” he observed.
When it comes to booking acts into local spaces, both Grue and Bradford believe that the limitation of local venues is an ongoing problem.
The Red Deer Arts Centre’s Mainstage is usually booked up with college events. The 700-seat Memorial Centre can be too large for some acts and too small for others. The next step up would be the 7,000-seat Centrium. The next step down would be the 140-seat Scott Block, which requires promoters to set up and take down the seats after an event.
“It’s a lot of extra work,” said Bradford, who prefers using the Elks Hall because of its cabaret seatings and good acoustics.
Grue had trouble locating an appropriate, affordable venue after The Matchbox closed. Ignition Theatre ended up renting the tiny Nickle Studio, upstairs at the Memorial Centre.
He wishes local arts groups could have worked together to better accommodate each other’s needs. For instance, he said, some fledgling theatre groups in Edmonton get free rehearsal space from more established companies in exchange for volunteering or other things.
This idea is expanded on by Stephen Ridge, co-owner of the former The Matchbox, who suggested that a local umbrella organization is perhaps needed to look out for all visual and performing arts in Red Deer. This organization could make sure that scheduled events don’t overlap and that every group’s needs are met through collaborative partnerships with other arts groups.
Grue’s wish list would include having something like a local emergency arts fund set up to help organizations recover from a bad season. He noted it doesn’t have to be from taxpayers, perhaps all the users could contribute to it.
He’d also like to see a multi-use performing arts space created by the City of Red Deer that could offer lower leases to help small, struggling groups get on their feet — but realizes there are likely budgetary reasons for why this can’t happen anytime soon.
One local venue that’s seemingly doing well with monthly concerts and other family events is The Hub on Ross. But its operating costs are covered by the Persons with Developmental Disabilities Board.
Staffer Twyla Joy Lapointe said The Hub doesn’t have to make money on ticket sales, and “we’re really grateful that we do not have to be sitting in offices, applying for grants.” Because The Hub “is an example of our taxpayer money at work,” Lapointe believes the community has developed a sense of ownership of the facility and makes good use of its drop-in theatre, music and art programs.
At the same time, she feels for local arts groups that are struggling because they don’t have a similar safety net.
“It’s been sad to see a lot of our friends affected by low turnouts and poor ticket sales. Everybody loves the idea of culture, but when it’s time to support it by opening up a wallet and purchasing a ticket, there seems to be a delay.”
Red Deer Symphony Orchestra executive director Melody McKnight believes it’s bad for the whole community when an arts group fails.
“Both CAT and Ignition Theatre were big supporters of the RDSO,” she said, buying advertisements in the program and contributing towards the fundraising gala. “We’d really like to see CAT survive,” added McKnight, because having a viable theatre scene makes Red Deer a more attractive, liveable city — the same way as having a symphony orchestra does.
Red Deer Mayor Morris Flewwelling, a former Red Deer museum executive director, and city Coun. Paul Harris, a businessman and co-owner of the Harris Warke Gallery, understand the pressure local arts groups are under.
“When one group comes to you that’s failing, that’s one thing,” but when there are multiple requests from groups for more money, it’s time to look at the forces at work, said Flewwelling.
City council will soon consider CAT’s request for emergency interim funding, which is contingent on the group presenting a solvency plan. City officials are also in discussions with the RDSO about the orchestra’s funding shortfall.
Flewwelling is hopeful for the future of local arts organizations — including CAT, which “has endured for 42 years and hopefully can be resurrected.”
One of the forces working against them, however, is a lack of affordable, appropriately sized local performing arts venues, said Harris, who noted the city’s Cultural Master Plan identified the need for a 250-seat theatre in 2001 and again in 2008.
But another perennial problem has been finding money in the budget to build one.
Flewwelling said the City Centre Stage project that CAT took on, to its financial detriment, created a perfect sized theatre for the city’s downtown. It’s now going unused, so he hopes someone will still step forward to put City Centre Stage back into action.
But venue space aside, there’s another way that the city can help local arts organizations.
Harris and Flewwelling say that the city’s Fee for Service grants, which are distributed periodically among local arts groups, have not grown in the last decade, while demand for them has drastically increased.
They both believe it’s time for this to change.
Harris predicts that advocating for the arts fund to be topped up won’t make him popular in some circles, but he still intends to support this. Unlike the people whose mantra is funding and service cuts, Harris prefers expanding the city’s tax base to increase the overall budget revenue.
The councillor sees building up Red Deer’s cultural scene is a good way of attracting new businesses and residents.
“People come here to work because of the life they can lead here, not because of the job they can get,” agreed Flewwelling, who believes a positive sea change is underway in how the provincial government views the arts.
He noted Alberta Premier Alison Redford was mentored by community-building former premier Peter Lougheed, who cultivated arts and culture.
If Redford’s government boosts funding to local arts organizations, as is expected, then performing spaces in the city can become more affordable to renters because a greater portion of their core costs will be supported by grants, noted the mayor.
“There’s a Renaissance in the attitude of the premier and of many of her people, and to me this is the signal that we might be able to restore some of the core funding that’s so badly needed. . . .
“What we’re seeing is the tail end of the erosion,” predicted Flewwelling.
Others are also positive about Red Deer’s cultural future — including Bradford, who feels that while Red Deer’s offerings are sometimes taken for granted since the city is in the middle of two large population centres, “it’s going to get better.”
He noted a recent concert by Steve Earle actually drew fans from Edmonton and Calgary and from as far as Cold Lake to Red Deer.
Harris is pleased with the success of the Ross Street Patio this summer, and the fact that the opening weekend for Against the Wall Theatre’s Bull Skit! comedy troupe was nearly a sellout at the Scott Block.
“I think it’s all cyclical and the economy had a ripple down effect. Arts groups are usually the last to recover. . . . But things are starting to turn around,” he said.
Grue optimistically started his small professional theatre group in Red Deer because he’s always believed that this city has enough drive and local talent to fuel a vibrant cultural scene.
“I’ve always believed that things can work out here. It’ll take time to figure things out and work things out, but I think it will come back. All hope is not lost, that’s for sure.”