Supporters of the arts are surprised and bewildered by the sudden closure of the Norfolk Arts Centre in Simcoe.
Norfolk council announced in late January that it wants to find a community group that is interested in running it.
To that end, Ellen McIntosh-Green of Simcoe, a former chair of the Lynnwood Arts Centre board of directors, convened a meeting of nearly two dozen individuals to discuss the arts centre’s future.
McIntosh-Green was surprised to subsequently discover that the centre closed without notice on Feb. 6 and that curator Roberta Grosland has been let go. The doors at Lynnwood have been locked and its phone number disconnected.
“I’m just devastated,” McIntosh-Green said. “I don’t know what to do about the situation. I don’t know what to say. I’m overwhelmed.”
On Thursday, McIntosh-Green – an accomplished painter – said transitioning the centre is more difficult now that it has been mothballed. The centre’s prospects, she said, would be better “if they had done this gradually.”
“They’ve made it more difficult,” McIntosh-Green said. “Now I don’t know where to turn. It would be a full-time job finding the funding to run it.”
McIntosh-Green is shocked the county would have followed council’s direction in this manner given that a new exhibit by indigenous photographer Patricia Deadman, of Woodstock, opened in late January. McIntosh-Green attended the opening and saw no indication that the centre’s future was precarious.
“There are shows booked for the coming year and there are contracts involved,” she said. “Norfolk County doesn’t know what’s involved with operating an arts centre.”
Norfolk County has warned for weeks that a difficult, expensive budget deliberation was in the offing. The axe fell Day 1 Jan. 28 after council spent more than three hours in-camera discussing a host of layoffs, closures and other cost-cutting measures.
Prominent among them was the decision to offload or close the Norfolk Arts Centre, move its permanent collection to the Norfolk County Archives at the former Eva Brook Donly Museum in Simcoe, and disperse the museum’s collection of artifacts to county museums in Waterford, Delhi and Port Dover.
Budget talks ended Jan. 29 with council approving an 8.4 per cent increase in residential property taxes. As a result, the average homeowner in Norfolk will see their taxes rise this year by about $230.
Council has reiterated on several occasions in recent weeks that drastic cuts and steep tax increases are necessary to keep the county solvent.
In a news release on Feb. 5, the county said the municipality had fallen into a pattern of expenses outstripping revenue.
Past administrations, council claims, papered over the shortfall with reserve-fund spending. Norfolk’s reserves are depleted, with council claiming higher taxes are needed to balance the books.
A presentation during the budget session suggested this is only the first step in righting the ship.
Jason Burgess, Norfolk’s interim general manager of corporate services, suggested that next year’s levy-supported operating budget will likely come in with a proposed increase in the range of eight per cent. All this on the heels of a 16.8 per cent increase in water rates that are already among the most expensive in Ontario.
“These were incredibly difficult decisions,” Mayor Kristal Chopp said in a news release on Feb. 5.
“But this council inherited some very significant financial issues, and we’ve made it a priority to address them. By making these changes, we’re putting Norfolk back on the road toward financial sustainability.”
McIntosh will continue feeling out the community for support of the arts centre under new leadership. Federal funding might be available, she said, due to Lynnwood’s status as a national heritage site.
However, McIntosh warns federal and provincial funding for the arts tends to be traditional. She said it is difficult for new players to break into the application process.
Lynnwood was built in 1851 by Duncan Campbell, a banker, land commissioner and Simcoe’s first post-master. The Classical Revival mansion has served as an arts centre since 1974. The former Lynnwood board of directors persuaded Norfolk County to assume responsibility for the property and its collection nearly 15 years ago.