Precarious: Peterborough ArtsWORK Festival

When Jim Braund sold the Commerce Building to Ashburnham Realty earlier this year, many in the arts community breathed a sigh of relief. But Kate Story, a pillar of Peterborough’s downtown theatre sector, still has concerns.

Although Ashburnham does not appear to have demolition in mind, it has made no firm commitment to retain affordable studios for artists in this literal and figurative cornerstone of the Hunter Street entertainment district.

In 2005 an extensive One Roof Project Conceptual Plan and Preliminary Feasibility Analysis (PDF) was developed for the now-defunct Peterborough Arts Umbrella, citing the same needs for proprietary artist space and protections that, over a decade later, have not come close to being realized.

The potential loss of artist spaces, coupled with the deferral of Artsweek this year, makes the timing critical for Story to produce the multi-venue, month-long Precarious Festival this November, designed to examine the relentless financial instability that dogs artists and arts organizations.

With the the completion of Highway 407, the closure and loss of 300 jobs at GE, the change of ownership of major downtown properties, a rising real estate market, and a municipal election on the horizon, Story feels Peterborough is at a crossroads. She writes:

“Precarious labour sustains many artists, and invisible labour characterizes much cultural production. Peterborough, our context, is a classic example of an industrial town whose prosperity hollowed out, leaving a core filled with those living in relative poverty and independent artists due to cheap rent and links with the local liberal arts university. Gentrification is now underway, creating a sense of urgency.”

Most of us can appreciate that “artwork is work.”

Yet the average income of a Canadian artist is 32% lower than the average income in the overall labour force, according to Hill Strategies.

Exacerbating this national statistic is the Community Foundation’s 2016 Vital Signs report: Peterborough spends only approximately $65 per capita on the arts as compared to Guelph’s $107.

Our municipality tends to invest more in cultural presentation infrastructure and less on supporting our existing arts community, despite its exceptional reputation. Story reminds me of painter Gary Blundell’s observation: “Why don’t they fund the things that are already working?”

The festival examines the enormous amount of invisible labour in the arts that goes unacknowledged and financially unrewarded. As stage manager Eryn Lidster, whose new independent production Invisible will be presented during the festival, says, “There are a lot of magical things that happen during the creative process that the audience doesn’t always get to see. I also think that it’s important to acknowledge the challenges we are faced with when presenting a show.”

An indispensible member of Peterborough’s artistic community, Story has impressive credentials. With director Ryan Kerr she produces, writes, directs, and performs dance and theatre at the tiny black box powerhouse, Theatre on King. She is also a short story writer with the publication of numerous novels under her belt.

PrecariousLast year she brought us A Certain Place: the Bernie Martin Festival, which shone a spotlight on the intricacies of regional artmaking, as it celebrated the incredible legacy of paintings, music, poetry, theatre, and activism by an obscure yet influential cultural icon from Peterborough.

Building on the sense of place and significance that the Bernie Martin Festival evoked, Precarious will take place in the month of November 2017, and will feature over 50 artists, partnering with local community as well as arts organizations like Public Energy, Artspace, The Nervous System, Ring O’ Rosie, bird, buried press, Peterborough Dance Works, Rock Camp for Girls Peterborough (RC4G), Evans Contemporary, and Atelier Ludmila.

In collaboration with the Trent Community Research Centre and Electric City Culture Council (EC3), Precarious will also launch the first ever comprehensive survey of the state of the artist in Peterborough.

We can expect to experience an extravaganza of events taking place throughout the month, beginning with a late-October launch and a multidisciplinary event in the Commerce Building during the First Friday Art Crawl on November 3, 2017.


The Precarious Festival launches on October 25 with live music by Steelburner at the Sapphire Room (more info). See the Precarious Festival website for a full list of events.

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Ann Jaeger

Ann Jaeger

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