With the Brampton Music Theatre facing a bleak future COVID-19 brings fear to the city’s courageous arts scene
As the world continues to be gripped by this unrelenting pandemic, we have escaped into forms of entertainment trapped within our screens.
The stock price for Netflix sat at $299 on March 16, it closed at $419 on Friday. The company’s meteoric success during this unprecedented shift in social mobility coincides with the shuttering of almost all live performances and other cultural offerings in local arts scenes.
As Karen Bell-Young sees it, the trend is not healthy, on many levels. A teacher in the arts with the Peel District School Board, she knows the consumption of art, in whatever form, is important. “The arts connect with people in a way that makes them vital to the human experience,” she told The Pointer.
Brampton Music Theatre's production of Les Misérables
The increase in support for online art forms is contrasted with what’s happening in many parts of the local scene. Live theatre, art galleries and dance classes are just a few of the many expressions of art that have been impacted in recent months and continue to face ongoing questions about the recovery after COVID-19 retreats.
The problem is twofold in Brampton: arts play an important role in the cultural expression of the city, while the space has needed revitalizing for years because of under-funding and a disconnect between large segments of the community and many in the public.
One of the most prominent and long running arts organizations, Brampton Music Theatre (BMT), has been forced to cease operations. Come June 1, BMT will no longer have a physical home, with funding issues now insurmountable. The $6,000 every month for rent at its current location on Tomken Road, where rehearsals are held and all its equipment is stored, is too much to cover while revenues have shriveled up, Sharon Vandrish told The Pointer.
Performances of its major productions have been held at the City-owned Rose Theatre, while its youth shows are usually held at the Lester B. Pearson Theatre.
The organization made its money from ticket sales, classes for youth and hosting bingo.
It does not receive financial support from external organizations or have any employees of its own.
With only volunteers as board members, applying for existing COVID-19 financial relief programs proposed by higher levels of government that require minimum staffing levels was not an option.
“One hundred percent of our revenue is gone,” Vandrish said. And now, this arts institution in the city, which has produced theatre since 1963, faces a dire future.
Hairspray performed by the Brampton Music Theatre
BMT is a victim of the funding gaps that exist in current government relief programs, Bell-Young believes, adding to the list of groups, such as international students and commercial business owners who rent their space claiming their situation makes them unable to receive financial assistance. “I don't believe they deliberately withheld anything. I just think that they haven't caught up to the breadth of need that exists to keep these organizations going,” Bell-Young said.
While the federal government did announce some funding for the arts earlier this month, requirements for receiving funds are stringent. At the municipal level, the City of Brampton told The Pointer, staff are working on recommendations for the revitalization of the Advance Brampton Fund, which provides funding for non-profit organizations in the city. The fund was put on hold as the spread of the virus began. The City is also offering programs online and planning conversations with stakeholders in the local industry.
Help is desperately needed as the closing of arts organizations would be a huge blow to the life of the city, Bell-Young says. The arts scene is what makes Brampton vibrant, she insists, offering a positive cultural outlet in a city that has been associated with negative news in the past. “The arts are just too vital in Brampton,” she said. “The arts save lives.”
Bell-Young grew up in the world of performing arts and was part of some community theatre shows with BMT in the early 2000’s, and in recent years.
As a teacher, she knows teenagers need spaces to be healthy and productive, often with like-minded individuals, and she believes a problem with youth might arise if the novel coronavirus wipes out arts programming.
Vandrish agrees, and sees the arts as an element of society that brings self-awareness and confidence to people. She sees this illustrated online as well. With many arts-based organizations offering free virtual programming, it shows a need that many are desperate to fill. “I think we're very much realizing how much we miss the arts with the huge void that’s been created.”
The Brampton Music Theatre production of Newsies
Organizations like BMT play a role in making access to the arts easier in Brampton. They put on “junior shows,” musicals by youth with training by professionals. Reasonable price points for the experience, in comparison to private, for-profit organizations, allow access for many families, Bell-Young said. “Basically, it's not just reserved for the elite. It draws on…kids with specialized interests to be around kids who have those same interests.”
While operations will soon cease, the organization will not completely shut down. It is raising money to pay for future storage of props and has seed money to resume production once physical distancing measures end.
While COVID-19 has brought upon a lot of hardships for BMT and other arts groups across Brampton, it’s not an obstacle Vandrish believes will bring the organization down.
“I think if anything, it'll probably bring the important value of it to the forefront as people start to realize what matters and that the value around these things are important.”
Arts in the city have faced a number of recent challenges.
In 2015, Brampton’s Art Council closed its doors after being in business for 37 years. Founded in 1978, funding and grants for the organization were re-structured over the years, leaving it without sufficient funds to rely on. In early January, hopes were lifted when City Council approved The Arts, Culture and Creative Industry Development Agency. Known as the Agency for short, the goal of the project is to advocate for the creative industries in Brampton.
Initially planned to get $372,000 in funding this year to start operations, the implementation of the project remains in the early stages. The decision to approve the Agency came before COVID-19 arrived.
Vandrish, who was one of many key stakeholders pushing the idea, has not heard any updates. During these unprecedented times, information on many fronts has been slow to emerge.
“I think I'd be naive to think that [the plan is a priority] simply because we have to really focus on the health and safety of our city and our citizens,” she said. The Agency is a vital aspect for the city’s 2040 Vision, a document that aims to reinvent the city through job creation, environmental stewardship and the creation of a thriving arts scene.
Let’s hope it remains one of the pillars Brampton builds its future on.
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