The Municipal Cultural Plan: Long on Big, Short on Small

A Midterm Review

I’m likely one of a handful of people who actually refer to the 2012 City of Peterborough Municipal Cultural Plan (MCP) (PDF) on a regular basis.

Respected arts consultants along with a team of city planners and the public collaborated on the comprehensive cultural roadmap with a goal of utilizing the “lens of culture” in every nook and cranny of the machinery of city governance and planning.

Mayor Bennett appealed to the public to “be bold” in their visioning, but was the resulting plan simply too ambitious to be realized effectively? Has the plan been able to equally fulfill the mandates of larger institutions and still recognize and support our small-but-mighty independent artists and organizations?

It provides a convincing case for a broad definition of culture as a prerequisite for a healthy, diverse, and engaged citizenry and a strong economy.

The document identifies our extensive cultural assets, seven strategic directions, and clearly outlines recommendations, best practices, and a detailed implementation plan. Though leaning heavily on Richard Florida’s hipster economics, which have lost their new-penny shine in recent years, it provides a convincing case for a broad definition of culture as a prerequisite for a healthy, diverse, and engaged citizenry and a strong economy.

“While the MCP is a corporate plan, building cultural capacity means recognizing and meeting the needs of the community in a variety of ways,” it states, “from supporting the proposed culture council and maximizing access to funding for the City and the community, to advocating for the value of the work of artists and recognizing the value of the creative economy.“

Sounds like that should be a boost for the arts community, right?

Although the Art Gallery of Peterborough and the Canoe Museum have higher profiles and bigger budgets, Peterborough is probably best renowned for its lively, contemporary, grassroots art, performance, and music scenes that grew out of the confluence of Trent University’s cultural and political slant, regional artists including Americans David Bierk and Dorothy Caldwell who began Artspace in the 70s, and the Union Theatre’s anything-goes, punkesque, DIY aesthetic.

There is no denying that in recent years the City has embarked on robust investments in cultural infrastructure: the rebuild of the Public Library, much-needed repairs to the Art Gallery of Peterborough, an award-winning design for the relocation of the Canoe Museum, and plans for significant people- and bike-friendly overhauls of Bethune Street and the Louis Street parking lot.

The Avenues have been protected as Heritage District, and a Public Art Advisory Committee (PAAC) was established, providing input on two new public murals.

Library reconstruction

The reconstruction of the Public Library is one example of the Municipal Cultural Plan in action

Our own Electric City Culture Council (EC3) was launched, if still finding its sea legs, charged with providing an arm’s-length regional voice, support and advocacy for our cultural community, and municipal alignment with provincial and federal cultural policies.

The Arts, Culture, and Heritage Advisory Committee (ACHAC), whose meetings are open to the public, provides recommendations on interdepartmental design aspects of projects, from the street lights at the Lily Lake subdivision to the landscaping of the new casino. Chair Derek Carter-Edwards says the process has required a shift in thinking from both the ACHAC and a plethora of city departments not entirely in sync with one another and admits “we’re not there yet.”

While Becky Rogers, Manager of the City’s Arts, Culture, & Heritage Division, lists these many successes, she was refreshingly frank in admitting the dangers of multiple initiatives, the slow progress in the recognition that culture has value, and the establishment of what are notoriously slippery metrics to measure not only the economic, but social values of culture – for quality of life, tourism and diversity and inclusion.

The MCP itself clearly lists not only arts organizations but artists themselves as cultural resources and spells out the need to “foster and support the growth of the arts sector,” art hubs and the downtown.

Currently small- to mid-sized arts organizations like the Peterborough Symphony, Public Energy, and the Art School of Peterborough annually compete with sports, environmental, health and social service organizations to receive a slice of just over $200,000 in Community Investment Grants, while the City considers investing $53 million in a sports arena.

We spend only $65 per person on investment in arts and culture in contrast to the Kingston and Guelph areas, which spend over $100 per person.

The Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough’s Vital Signs 2016 reports that we spend only $65 per person on investment in arts and culture in contrast to the Kingston and Guelph areas, which spend over $100 per person. In addition we are 10% more dependent on volunteers than the provincial and national averages.

In anticipation of the completion of Highway 407 and proposed restoration of passenger rail service, downtown real estate is changing hands and Peterborough is poised for gentrification, a toxic situation for the precarious arts community, though not unique to Peterborough.

A recent article in the Temporary Art Review describes how over-investment in large infrastructure imperils a network of grassroots alternative organizations. These “remain underfunded because they don’t fit a neat downtown narrative, aren’t savvy nonprofits, and present challenging work in their own vernacular,” writes George Scheer. ”Cultural capital in the arts is just decoration if it doesn’t hold investors and civic leaders responsible to existing communities, doesn’t embrace community design, and leaves artists outside the planning process.”

Five years after its release, the Municipal Cultural Plan appears to be performing well for envisioning and funding large-scale, show-stopping cultural spaces, and better window dressing. But it falls short on trusting and harnessing the engine of the indie, of the generative, of the indefinable, of the many impossibly mighty artists and arts organizations who forge and instill life into Peterborough in a dizzying array of ways each and every day.

Cover artwork by Skylar Ough.

Fields marked with an * are required
Ann Jaeger

Ann Jaeger

Ann Jaeger writes Trout in Plaid, a journal of arts and culture in the Peterborough area.