Nothing is more refreshing than visiting a cultural facility that is managed both responsively and responsibly for the benefit of its own community. Meet the Midland Cultural Centre (‘The MCC’).
Fifteen months after opening, the MCC has started to make a huge impact on the Town of Midland. That’s all by design. MCC is an arts and culture multiplex, a community home for the visual arts, live theatre, concerts, movies, banquets and recitals.
Regular readers may recall that the MCC was an $10 million gift to the Town of Midland from the Weber Foundation, a family foundation with deep roots in the community. However, it’s much more than an extraordinary gift of bricks and mortar that makes the MCC unique; the governance structure of the Centre itself is totally community based and driven.
Why is this important?
The MCC proves it is possible to have a large and complex art and cultural facility run by community leaders, as opposed to by municipally paid bureaucrats. What results is a responsiveness to needs and a notion of community responsibility that is often absent with municipal enterprises.
The MCC has lofty ambitions as to how it should both impact on and react to the community. Eager to learn how these ambitions had reconciled with reality, John Bleasby met with Fred Hacker (pictured above), President and Chairman of the MCC. A recently retired managing and founding partner of a large regional law firm, Fred’s relationship with the Weber family goes back decades as a professional advisor, as a trustee of their foundation, and as a close family friend.
What were the biggest challenges the MCC faced during its first year?
The building itself is quite imposing; 30,000 square feet of block and glass. One of our early challenges has been to programme the facility in such a way as to assure the community that this is their building. There is often a sense that the arts are somehow an elite snobbish thing and not accessible to all. We’re working very hard to provide events that will appeal broadly.
It would be natural if something hadn’t gone according to plan in the first year. Were there ‘Ooops!’ moments?
We expected our executive kitchen would very quickly have a lot of dinner events when associated with the shows here, dinner show combinations for example. Very low turnouts unfortunately. This points to two things. One is that we over-estimated how quickly our culinary art would catch on and carry us financially. The second thing is we learned how difficult it is to market to this community. Midland is much diverse than what it once was. Paid advertising is expensive. Although we are now working on partnerships with our media friends to support one another, there is a lot of competition for attention. We use Facebook, weekly email blasts; we’re tweeting; we have new signage to inform street traffic; a good web site. Marketing is a hurdle, and it is a hurdle for every organisation I talk to: How do you tell people what you do, and how do you make them want to do it with you?
In a multi-function building with so much to offer in so many areas of the arts and community, where is the MCC’s heartbeat?
Our café, Café Roxy, is really that heartbeat. That’s where we see people gathering increasingly for great food prepared in our own kitchen, or just to have a latte or cappuccino. Lots of groups have casual meetings right here in the café. They are saying; ‘Let’s meet at the MCC’.
Is it true that the MCC operates without any municipal involvement or funding?
We have no political accountability to the Town of Midland. The site was acquired, the plans were drawn, the building constructed all by the Weber Foundation. Although owned by the Town of Midland, the Midland Cultural Centre Inc., a not-for-profit organisation, has a 50 year lease on the building. We do have a representative of Council on our board and we do, on an annual basis, keep the Town informed, but we do not report to Council. This is not a municipally-operated building and taxpayers are not contributing to the operating costs.
Is municipal funding that something the MCC would welcome?
We don’t want funding from any source that has strings attached. Of course we would welcome their support, but we are also aware of the constraints that are in place. This facility was built to be self-sustaining and we are working towards that goal. To that end, we are trying to do more programming to increase our income and we will be seeking grants from various art councils and foundations as we become qualified. For many of these you have to be in operation for two years. We also have applied for charitable status and hope that will be in place by the end of the calendar year.
Are there any on-going discussions with the municipality regarding funding?
No. We have not approached the municipality at all. In an ideal world I would love to see them come to us at some point and say ‘You’re doing such a great job and the community is benefitting so much from this that we can foresee how you could do even more with some financial support.’
When do you see the MCC being financially self-sustaining?
We are working our way towards that. It’s impossible to open a facility like this and not have a deficit in the first year. We are fortunate that our benefactor recognised that it would take some time.
But is it achievable?
Yes. But no one has ever run a facility like this before. We’ve been told by people on the Ontario Arts Council and various other agencies that no one has an art gallery, theatre, event centre, executive kitchen, café and a performing arts atrium all under one roof.
How varied is your programming with respect to your goal of broad community engagement?
The Huronia Players of course provide high quality stage productions which appeals to a certain part of our community. We’ve had some local dance teachers do their recitals here, which is another opportunity for children and their families to come to the facility. We run movies during the school spring break. We had our famous Butter Tart Festival here this summer. We’re trying to do something for everybody here; for example, we have events as highbrow and sophisticated as Leona Boyd and Anton Kuerti to Wednesday 4 o’clock high school ‘Open Mic’s’ in the atrium.
You say ‘we’. Who is the ‘we’ that puts the programming together?
It’s an informal and often fluid process. For example, four weeks ago there was a public meeting of the Midland Cultural Plan Committee in the library; people coming together to give their input into Midland’s cultural future. One person made the comment that they had hoped the MCC would be ‘more of a hub’ than they felt it was; another said they wanted to see more accessible programming. My reaction to that could have been to say ‘Gee, we’re doing our best!’ Instead, I went to both people to discuss their comments. Three days later, one of those ladies had started hosting a programme at the MCC called ‘The Hub’, which brings all of the cultural community together every Monday from 5pm to 7pm. She’s been spectacular at generating interest and bringing other organisations into this facility in order to talk amongst themselves and cross pollinate in terms of what they’re doing. And the other person who spoke now sits on our programme committee.
Is there a more formal overall strategy to programming as well?
We’ve identified three components of programing; community programming, corporate programming and concert programming.
‘Community’ would be the things we programme ourselves that have a public interest. The ‘Day in the Life’ series was the first of those we rolled out, a monthly interview with a prominent Canadian; an upcoming travel series called ‘Destinations’ that investigates all manner of travel from cruises to eco-tourism. We plan to build a wellness programme, a seniors’ programme, an aboriginal programme and so on.
‘Corporate’ would be weddings, galas, anytime when we are renting our facility to a third party host. This might not be just in Rotary Hall but in the Board Room, for small businesses to host staff meetings and presentations for example.
The third is ‘Concerts’, where a third party promoter, or ourselves, bring in paid talent. For example, Brookside Music is a regular partner bringing in spectacular classical music and other genres too, like a Hank Williams and Patsy Cline tributes.
How important is it for the MCC programming to be driven by the community rather than by bureaucrats or municipal employees?
We are able to be entirely true to our mandate, which is to bring broadly based quality art and culture to our community. It’s not a matter of fulfilling somebody’s political agenda. And it’s not a matter of doing the same thing over and over.
How is the Quest Art Gallery & School integrated into this programming model?
Everyone knows about their gallery but what Quest is doing in art promotion and art teaching is quite significant. They have classes for children and adults; there are people in the facility all hours of the day. They have juried shows, displays and exhibitions. They have started an art rental programme. And they are integrated into other aspects of the MCC as partners, just as are The Huronia Players. We are all united in serving the community.
Tell me about the importance of community volunteerism at the MCC.
Back when we were meeting to plan how to operate the facility, our intention was to have a volunteer-driven organisation. By that I mean our fulltime staff would be implementers, but it would be the committees that would be driving the content of the facility, starting with our Board. Each Board member has certain skills, and are not necessarily rooted in the arts community. We looked for those connected with the community who knew how to grow businesses, who would more likely to be seen in the audience than on the stage. Plus, we have a team of volunteers that, for example, runs our Box Office from 9am to 5pm, five days a week, plus other times as needed. The setup and tear down crews in the Rotary Hall facility are all volunteers, all from the community.
What has the Board done to be so successful at volunteerism?
We try to have the volunteers feel that this is their MCC and well as the community’s MCC. We listen. Some of our best suggestions for programming and operations have come from our volunteer core. Do we need more volunteers? Absolutely. Could we do more if we had more volunteers? Absolutely.
How many fulltime employees are there?
Right now the MCC runs with five fulltime staff, including two cooks in the commercial kitchen. We of course have a General Manager and an Assistant General Manager, but have also an Events Manager who coordinates the public use of the MCC on a rental basis, such as celebrations of life, weddings, galas, corporate events, incoming professional entertainment; she coordinates all of that.
Is there a philosophy shared by Board members that will drive MCC into the future?
This came up at a recent board meeting. Going around the table there were comments such as ‘the MCC should be the top of the go-to list for art and music’; ‘the MCC should drive the economy of the area as culture becomes one of our major economic focusses’; ‘the destination of choice for residents and tourists’, ‘the MCC should be the hub of the community’; and ‘we should see a net increase in the cultural activity in the community.’ That last comment is very interesting because it is part of our outward looking mandate; not just to get people in the door, but to raise the level of artistic and cultural content in the entire community. We see the MCC as being part of the fabric of this community and part of the economic foundation of the community.
This interview has been edited and condensed from the original conversation.
To see what is going on at The Midland Cultural Centre CLICK HERE