They built it. People came. Shenkman Arts Centre celebrates a decade

The Shenkman Arts Centre is celebrating its first decade.

‘If you build it, he will come.’

It’s a cliche today but there is truth in the famous quote from the move Field of Dreams based on W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe.

Caroline Obeid remembers such a moment. On the day the Shenkman Arts Centre opened its doors for the very first time she was rushing to walk through the doors at 8:30 in the morning. And there, standing at the door was someone waiting to buy a ticket.

“That moment told me this would be a success. We were thrilled that there was someone banging on the door on opening day.”

The Shenkman Arts Centre celebrates a decade with a massive block party on June 14. There is little doubt it is a success today.

Some 175,000 people visit the centre each year now, attending about 1,000 events from pottery classes to art openings to performances in the theatres. It has become what people had always hoped for — a place to make and enjoy art in Orleans and indeed in the east end of the city.

Building the dream.

Obeid has been there from before Day One. In 2008, she was hired out of the city of Ottawa’s culture department with her Masters in arts administration in hand to lead the centre into the future.

But that day in June 2009 was a long time coming.

People in Orleans had been advocating for such a community space for almost 20 years before that, Obeid said.

“The arts community in Orleans wanted a creative hub in their neighbourhood.”

There were some interesting things happening in the community but they were dispersed. Organizations such as the Ottawa School of Theatre and the Gloucester Pottery school were making things happen in rec centres or in day cares.

The Shenkman centre was to be a focal point for the creative arts in Orleans. It was to be a multidisciplinary centre and maybe more importantly a bilingual art centre to support franco-Ontarian culture in Orleans which is almost 50 per cent of population of the community, Obeid said.

Kathi Langston remembers the days before Shenkman.

She joined the Ottawa School of Theatre in 2002 and immediately was embroiled in the lobby for the centre.

“As soon as I started jumped on the bandwagon that others had been riding on already to build an arts centre in the east.

“We wanted a building that was devoted to the arts. We also wanted to bring the community in and that’s what we still want to have happen. It’s been pretty successful. After the 10 years we have all sorts of stakeholders.”

When the city finally said OK, Langston remembers, “It was so shocking.”

She still pinches herself when she walks through the doors.

“It’s beautiful. Every time I go in there it’s just gorgeous.

“People at that time were really starting to understand how important the arts are to communities and individuals especially to children.

Caroline Obeid is the manager and artistic producer at the Shenkman Arts Centre.

“All of the partners (in Shenkman) are educators in the arts and most of our students are young. We teach all ages but most are young. People started to realize the arts are essential. They aren’t frivolous.”

The Shenkman centre is that rare bird — a successful P3 project. And a lot of that is due to the fact that it is a very grassroots place, Obeid said.

“Having residents in the building who were delivering art created a way to work together. The place became a community of artists working together,” Obeid said.

The centre has given people in the community a focal point where they could grow and present their work.

Obeid manages the centre and she also is the artistic producer of the English professional presenting series. In addition, Shenkman has 14 full-time staff, 40 part-time staff and about 120 regular volunteers.

In addition to booking some 20 shows a season Obeid’s team is also responsible for offering courses in music, dance and new media. And it runs three of seven galleries. The Ottawa School of Art is one of the partners in the centre and it holds art classes and exhibitions there.

The city operates the building which is leased from a private company. The lease will expire in 2032.

The road to today’s full houses and packed schedule is not all a straight line.

Langston remembers times in the first few years when “you could roll a bowling ball in here” and not hit anything.

“When we entered the building 10 years ago I think a lot of us were quite naive. We were thinking this is so lovely and thinking people would come and they didn’t because they didn’t know about it.

“There was interest at first, but that faded.”

And then slowly people returned and Langston says that has been lasting growth.

“I think there has been this natural growth that has occurred over the decade which is healthier. Now so many more people are invested in the building and really care.”

Her school will turn 30 in September and it’s packed, she said.

In the minds of many west of St. Laurent Boulevard, Orleans is defined by transit. Traffic jams at the split between Highway 174 and Highway 417 tend to be a cultural roadblock too.

The hope is that when light rail starts to runs (or is that if?), this perception will be debunked.

Obeid, who makes the trip every day from the Glebe in about 12 minutes, know it is hard to get noticed outside of Orleans.

But, in her opinion, that may not matter all that much. There is critical mass in Orleans itself where the population, which is highly educated and comfortable financially, is growing.

“Cultural planning in the 1970s and ’80s was really all about revitalizing downtown Ottawa. I think the next stage of cultural planning is about neighbourhoods. It is about grassroots initiatives and diversity and a multiplicity of voices coming forward and expressing themselves in different ways in non-traditional spaces.

“It’s different from building a downtown hub. East and West hubs now are critical because that’s where people live.

“I don’t know how many times I hear: ‘I’m so happy I don’t have to go downtown now’,” she said. You can park for free near the Shenkman and take advantage of the growing food culture in the community.

“In the centre you can go to see an art show, take a course, see a performance. It is now part of people’s lives because it’s so easy to access.

“It is hard in this city with all the national institutions to get seen. We are all going after the same audience, the same donors and competing for the same artists. We are lucky in Ottawa to have so many festivals and arts spaces, sometimes we might be competing with one another but I think that is a good thing.

“It’s good for artists who can choose where they want to build their audience and when.”

She believes a more coherent connection is building that will see artists moving through the city say starting at Shenkman, moving to Centreointe and on to to festivals like RBC Ottawa Bluesfest.

The centre does plan for the future in five year chunks.

“Our first strategic plan was to open the building and get it established and try a bunch of things to see what people wanted,” Obeid said.

The second plan (from 2015 to 2020) was more programming, more high profile programming and more diverse programming It was also about making the space more welcoming as a gathering place, she said.

The next five years will focus on diversity — ethnic diversity, sexual diversity … “all of it.”

In a broad sense, she said, this will involve working with groups around their needs and developing an understanding in how to welcome people to come in and use the centre.

Obeid would also like to build deeper partnerships with the festivals that all seem to happen downtown.

But, “we are booked now 18 months ahead every Thursday Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”

The centre is moving programming to Tuesday and Wednesday to open up more room on weekend nights.

“It’s a happy problem.”

The Shenkman Arts Centre 10th anniversary block party
Where: Shenkman Arts Centre,  245 Centrum Blvd
When: June 14 from 4 to 10 p.m.
For information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.