This brief account will provide a background to the development of the method of governing the O'Brien Arts Centre in Happy Valley-Goose Bay.
The O'Brien Arts Centre is a community performance space which opened in Sept. 2009 after several years of lobbying by the community. The drive to get a new theatre began in Nov. 2002 during the Labrador Creative Arts Festival when participants at the festival made a large papier mâché fish and filled it with wishes for a new theatre, as Goose High School was soon to close and no performance space had been added to the plans for the new high school. Members of the arts community formed a committee that became known as the "Wish Fish Committee" and this group carried out fund-raising and lobbying efforts for several years. Although the public face of the Wish Fish was known through the demonstrations and media-focused events, another large part of the effort involved becoming incorporated as a group and applying for government funding. Ian Feltham drew up the initial proposal to form the Eastern Labrador Arts Alliance and that was the document we used to incorporate, with some assistance from Carol Best at the Central Labrador Economic Development Board. As the newly formed ELAA we applied for funding from the province under the Municipal-Provincial funding program as well as the federal Cultural Spaces program, and these two sources were where we got the bulk of the money to construct the theatre. Along with the amount designated to build the theatre, we were also told that we would receive an operating grant.
During the planning phase, architect Ron Fougère made several visits to Goose Bay and met with us, and without any pay or guarantee that he would get the contract, he began the design that was eventually used.
After the announcement of funding for the building and the operating funds, we began the next phase of meetings that dealt with where the theatre would be placed and how it would be operated. There were some people in the community and in government who felt that it would be best placed on the college, but the arts community wanted the theatre to be attached to the school in order to continue the tradition of training students to use the space and the technical equipment, and to have it available to students during school hours. Convincing government of this course of action took a considerable amount of time and further lobbying. Once that decision was made and construction began, the Wish Fish/ELAA turned its attention to the matter of operating the theatre.
Operating funds in the amount of $160,000 per year had been allotted to pay the expenses of the theatre. The question arose as to who would be responsible for running the theatre, and we looked at several options. The Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay is the nominal owner of the facility because the funding program under which we applied required the town to make the application, though the ELAA prepared all the documents. The town council was firm in its stance that it would apply with the clear understanding that there would be no cost to the town and no work requested of them.
The other possible owner was the Labrador School Board, and for a time the ELAA had discussions with the school board hoping that they would become the operating institution, as they had human resources that could be of assistance in the operation of the theatre and maintenance of the grounds, and the proximity to the school meant that they had an interest in the facility. However, they were clear in stating that they would be willing to take the operating budget and run the theatre as part of the school facility, but would not be involved in community arts activity. This was contrary to what the Wish Fish group had worked towards, so a small group got together and developed a plan for the ELAA to run the theatre as a board with a hired manager, rather than going with the school board as the governing body.
The matter was eventually resolved through several meetings with government representatives from Tourism, Culture and Recreation and with the assistance of the Department of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs. The ELAA contacted the minister of Tourism, Culture and Recreation to ask for his assistance in convincing the town council that the ELAA could indeed run the theatre without incurring any costs to the town. Minister Clyde Jackman met with all the interested parties and the decision was made that the ELAA would transition from the lobbying group and become the governing board of the theatre, with a manager to be hired. We looked at other community models and determined that we would be able to operate the facility as a community theatre, and were at a particular advantage because we had a brand new facility and an adequate operating budget.
In May 2009 government held an event to name the theatre, which was called after late MP Lawrence O'Brien. The community opening was held in September 2009 with two nights of concerts to celebrate the achievements of the whole community in coming together to get the theatre built. This was also the first chance for the public to see the clay mural in the lobby, which was created by students through a project of the Labrador Creative Arts Festival. A separate event was help later to honour the artists.
We set up a hiring committee and hired Kathleen Hicks as manager in July 2009. Later, we identified the need for additional workers and initially planned to hire a full-time administrative helper. However, Kathleen determined that the best use of time was to hire two part-time people to work at admin tasks and in the box office. Because of the flexible arrangement, we can have all three present during performances.
When the theatre was completed there was considerable interest in the new building, and we called a meeting in August 2009 to invite people to be part of the ELAA and to hear about our plans for the theatre. We had a very successful meeting which resulted in the first ELAA board being elected. It is one of the strengths of the organization that it was able to transform from a lobbying and fundraising group into a governance organization, and this happened because new people with additional skills came forward at this point and joined. We elected a chair, vice-chair and treasurer and set up several committees which looked after finance and fundraising, front of house, maintenance and personnel. These committees were very active for the first year in particular as they worked with the manager to determine policies and set up procedures. With new people on board we were also able to work on the by-laws, job descriptions for board members and financial procedures. Martha MacDonald was the first chair and Donna Roberts moved from vice-chair to chair after Martha's three-year term ended. This is another strength of this board: with the term of the chair being specified and the understanding that that the vice-chair will move into the chair role, we have been able to avoid overwhelming volunteers with the possibility of pressure to continue in a role after they feel that they have completed their term.
The grant of $160,000 was a figure determined by Tourism, Culture and Recreation when the theatre opened. Soon after, we asked our then MHA, John Hickey, to try to get us some additional money. We were awarded an extra $40,000, which we received for the first year before it was reduced to $20,000 for three more years. We knew that this was not a guaranteed amount and take that into consideration when planning. Kathleen as manager has applied for additional funding and the theatre continues to run on a sound financial basis. Unlike Arts and Culture Centres, we are affordable for community groups. This is because all our ushers and some of our sound and lighting techs are volunteers, and employees are non-unionized, which allows for some flexibility in working hours. We have a system which allows community arts groups to purchase a membership, giving them unrestricted rehearsal time and a sliding scale of fees for performance rentals.
The ELAA functions very well and is indebted to its staff and volunteers for their dedication. The success of this board model is due to the deep interest board members have in the activity at the theatre, the diverse skills of board members, and the low demand on their time and energy due to the excellent work of the staff.