How the Waterloo Region art world is reinventing itself in light of the pandemic

·3 min read

The pandemic has pushed most of us beyond the maximum of what we thought we could tolerate, but as always change contributes to growth. This is definitely true for the Waterloo Region arts and culture sector, which has found creative ways to stay afloat during these difficult times.

As TheMuseum’s CEO David Marskell says, “we’re doing everything we can in terms of creativity.”

When TheMuseum saw its in-person attendance start to wane last spring, its operators quickly pivoted to outdoor exhibitions, launching the highly successful Dinosaurs: The Edge of Extinction.

The exhibition featured a century’s worth of research on the triceratops and tyrannosaurus rex dinosaurs and life-size statues of both that families could drive through in their cars. Facing scientific monsters of the past proved to be a huge hit with families and TheMuseum ended its last fiscal year with a modest surplus.

“I think we’ve been very creative and strategic in terms of how we approached this,” said Marskell.

“This is not a time to aspire to what we had before the pandemic because for a lot of non-profit and arts and culture groups things weren’t sustainable.

“So it was a time to rethink and sort of relook at our whole business model and ask what can we do? That is what the pandemic has given us.”

Cambridge Community Players executive director Martin Smith agrees with this approach.

“We have been very fortunate to be able to stay afloat with the generous donations of our members and friends and a financially successful run of our play ‘Burs of a Feather’,” said Smith.

The theatre company also revived the artistic format of the radio drama, a format where plays and dramas are performed in audio versions over the radio. The audio plays doubled as fundraisers that were highly successful and contributed to the continued financial health of Cambridge Community Players.

Even for other companies where things have proven to be more difficult, arts institutions are making ends meet even with growing challenges.

Drayton Entertainment, one of the largest community theatre companies in southwestern Ontario, which operates Hamilton Family Theatre in Cambridge and St. Jacobs Country Playhouse, pivoted to digital programming during the pandemic.

Similar to Cambridge Community Players, Drayton Entertainment also relied on a retro artistic format to entertain audiences during the pandemic, producing a 1950s style variety show during the winter of 2020, which featured comedy bits for kids, Broadway classics and live theatre.

Drayton Entertainment artistic director Alex Mustakas said that the theatre industry faces some unique challenges when it comes to the pandemic.

“Our industry is unique in that all costs are incurred upfront and there is no meaningful way to offset or recover expenses when programming is cancelled,” Mustakas said.

“The pandemic has severely hindered the financial security of hundreds of artists and staff who directly rely on us for their livelihood. Despite these obstacles, we have sustained the relationship with our audience and kept people engaged by pivoting online and providing digital programming.”

Mustakas said other factors that have been key to Drayton Entertainment’s sustainability have been donations, wage subsidies and the company’s 50/50 raffle draw.

This kind of creativity goes back to Marskell’s sage advice.

“I really think it’s important that organizations rethink their whole model and just see how they can do things differently and ideally better.”

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: When the province announced a reduced 50 per cent capacity for large venues in light of the Omicron variant, reporter Genelle Levy sought to explore what impact this would have on the arts world in Waterloo Region.

Genelle Levy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cambridge Times

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