QAC History – the early years

Quinte Arts Council: the early years

The year was 1967 and Canada was celebrating its 100th year as a nation. The entire country was involved in a year-long celebration that saw the beginnings of many projects so successful that they would continue on to this day.

The festival that started it all

April brought Arts Festival 67 which demonstrated the talents and achievements of a number of Quinte-area performing and visual arts organizations. It ran for four days at Centennial Secondary School. The festival featured The Eastern Ontario Concert Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Choma, a visual arts display of work by The Belleville Art Association, Belleville Camera Club and Belleville Arts and Crafts Club, The Belleville Theatre Guild’s production of Robertson Davies’ At My Heart’s Core, directed by Deirdre Warren, and a performance by The Belleville Choral Society, directed by Phyllis W. May. This festival was a huge success and would continue annually for another 15 years. (A similar festival was launched in 1994, called Two Weeks in May festival of the arts.)

Nearly 500 people were involved in Arts Festival 67. It attracted an audience of approximately 2,800 and won acclaim for the high quality of all the presentations. This event represented a core sampling of the community’s cultural life.

The beginning of the council

Before 1967, various visual and performing arts groups existed throughout the Quinte area, all of them functioning independently, one group often not knowing that the other existed. Arts Festival 67 brought many of them together for the first time. The success of this event lead to the realization that, in order to conquer the ‘cultural wasteland’ that was Quinte, some kind of coordinating body was needed. Participants were also encouraged by the great sense of cooperative achievement.

Organizers worked with untiring effort. A steering committee was formed and, after a meeting to assess the Arts Festival, they decided to form an arts council, the second in the province. The Quinte Arts Council was established on September 25, 1967 with direction to serve and promote the cultural needs and interests of the four counties (Northumberland, Lennox and Addington, Prince Edward and Hastings).

The inaugural board meeting was held at the Lecture Theatre of Loyalist College and attended by the founding board members: Marian Wilson, president; Frank Moore, secretary; Murray Irwin, 1st vice president; Dr. Joan Bronskill, 2nd vice president; Ian Briggs; treasurer; and board members John Haisanuk, Meg Pederson, Joan Guthrie, Jean Szczerba, Bea Williamson, Roger Greig, Mike Last, James Law, Leona Riggs, Ronald Vandervelde and Thelma Finlayson.

Highlights of the 60s

In 1968 and 69 Arts Fest 68 featured The Eastern Ontario Concert Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Choma, The Belleville Theatre Guild’s productions of Charley’s Aunt and The Diary of Anne Frank, The Belleville Art Association, Belleville Camera Club, Belleville Arts and Crafts Club and Belleville Choral Society, conducted by Phyllis May and Murray Irwin.

Other QAC events included Aline van Barentzen, French pianist, The Kingston Symphony (the first symphony to play in Belleville in close to 30 years), conducted by Boris Brott, soloist Lili Kraus, Toronto Children’s Theatre, and a children’s play presented by Quinte Island Theatre.

The 1970s

During the 1970s, great strides were made in the visual arts and the professional display of art exhibits. A performing arts subscription series was established, and a great deal of emphasis was placed on opportunities for the youth of the community.

Linda Mustard and Paul Bernard created visual arts displays and juried exhibitions that took place at the Quinte Hotel from 1969 to 1971, then moved to Ben Bleecker 1972 to 1974. “Before there was a library gallery, the shows were held in The Quinte Hotel and then the Ben Bleecker Auditorium. The QAC didn’t shy away from big projects – they turned Ben Bleecker into a gallery by building huge panels and borrowing lights from Finkle Electric,” states Linda Mustard. “When we finally got into the library gallery, there were lineups to get in to see the shows. School children were bussed in. A desire for arts and culture in the community had clearly been established.”

Belleville General Hospital Art Exhibits began in June of 1973, largely due to the efforts of Linda Mustard and Paul Bernard. The first exhibition featured 20 paintings and five wall hangings. According to committee members, when the hospital shows started it was largely due to the fact that the hospital had confidence in the Council to do it properly and respect the corridor walls. The changeover days were highly anticipated – people couldn’t wait to see the new work. These juried shows opened doors for new artists and new audiences. “It was a time of democratization of the arts, no longer just for the elite,” states Mustard. “Many people, who would never enter a gallery, enjoyed the art in a public place. The ’70s was a turnaround decade for the arts.”

In 1974, the visual arts committee was formed and, on the request of Belleville’s Mayor Robin Jeffrey, organized the first visual art display at Belleville City Hall. In 1975, exhibits were also hung in Trenton Memorial Hospital.

This success spurred growth and experimentation in the visual arts.  For the 11th annual arts exhibition at Artsfest 77, the visual arts committee hired three qualified jurors from outside the district to assess the work being done locally. Survey 77, an exhibition of paintings, etchings, drawings, sculpture, weaving and pottery by Quinte area professional artists, was held at the library gallery. According to the committee chairman, Manfred Koechlin, the show “represented the high level of artistic achievement in our region,” and marked a new direction in the style of art presented in this area. Survey 78 took place the next year.

In 1978/79, the QAC sponsored the Lahr Art Exhibition, an international exchange of fine art with Lahr, Germany, at the Corby Public Library Gallery.

Sponsorship, touring funding and generous arts patrons were plentiful at this time. Early in 1974, Corby Distilleries indicated an interest in sponsoring a major event and in September of 1974, a meeting was held in order to form a performing arts committee. Diana and Manfred Koechlin were very much involved in the performing arts. Many professional companies from outside of the community were brought in, including The Royal Winnipeg Ballet and The Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Barber of Seville. 1977/78 saw the first Wiser’s Deluxe Series of the Performing Arts. Sponsored by Corby Distilleries, it was a sold-out success.

“We were able to bring in groups of the highest calibre, at a time when there was no other opportunity in our area to enjoy them,” states Manfred Koechlin. “The Toronto Symphony played at the Yardman Arena and we had productions by Neptune Theatre at Centennial Secondary School. Back when Stratford would tour, they brought with them costumes, artifacts and drawings to display at the library and schools. The Canadian Opera Company was resident in the communities for four or five days, leading workshops, singing with local choirs and performing in public spaces such as the Belleville Plaza and Bridge Street United Church.”

Other series productions included Entre Six starring Karen Kain and Frank Augustyn; The Canadian Opera Company’s The Marriage of Figaro; Theatre Beyond Words; Dinah Christie and Tom Kneebone in From Shakespeare to Sondheim; and Camerata. The Wiser’s Deluxe Series set a precedent for continued high-calibre entertainment in the Quinte area.

Emphasis on Programming for Young People

The emphasis on youth and the arts was very strong throughout the 1970s. Members of the Arts Council attended numerous conferences, most notably the annual conference of the Associated Councils of Arts, the theme being Youth, Education and the Arts. The QAC provided awards to four music festivals in the region; arranged for a visit by The National Shakespeare Company of New York, in a performance of Oedipus Rex which was seen by 700 students; was involved in the Youth Music Development Committee, which was formed to investigate the state of music education for young people in the four counties, make recommendations and develop projects; helped to sponsor the Youth Art Workshop along with The Hastings County Board of Education, the Belleville Recreation Committee and The Belleville Art Association; sponsored the Neptune Theatre production of The Servant of Two Masters, which included a matinée performance to an audience of students who gave it a standing ovation; brought in Company One from Victoria; did a survey of summer art camps; sponsored the Vocal Music Enrichment Programme, which resulted in the formation of a 75-voice choir at Napanee and District High School; saw the Youth Music Development Committee set up a summer music camp in Cloyne for two five-day periods in July of 1972, and much more.

In 1976, led by Julie Brock (Roberts), a Children’s Festival, jest for fun was established. jest for fun was a two-week festival of the arts which had an emphasis on reaching children in local elementary schools, with the support of the School Board, principals and teachers. “We were hoping to introduce children to the arts, who would not otherwise have this opportunity, and to expose them to all aspects of the arts. We made available a variety of entertainment for their enjoyment as spectators, and also encouraged them to explore their own talents by presenting opportunities for the display and publication of their works. There was a poetry supplement in the Intelligencer and the very first exhibit of children’s art work at the Corby Library took place during that first jest for fun. As you know, exhibits of children’s art continue at the library to this day. jest for fun laid the groundwork for that,” adds Julie.

Julie moved away, but came back in 1979 and a group got together and formed EACH, Enriched Arts for the Children of Hastings. Still believing that it was most important to take the arts into the schools to reach those children who would not otherwise have an opportunity to be exposed to the arts, they approached the Hastings School Board, asking them to set aside $5,000 for arts funding in the schools. EACH would bring performing artists into the community and arrange a tour of schools. All schools would be sent information about the performances and could apply for funding to help offset the cost if they were interested in the production. Julie was the one who set this all up and organized the two or three day visit to the community by the theatre or dance company (doing two or three shows a day for a couple of days reduced the cost per performance). They also did some productions in the BCI theatre, where kids were bussed in. EACH was an extension of jest for fun.

During the 1970s, the Arts Council was on the move around Belleville. In October of 1970 they moved into the United Community Services Building (paying $25 per month in rent). A couple of years later, they accepted an offer of office space from Peter Tichlin, at 254½ Front Street, for a fee of $10 per month. Then, in early 1974, the office moved to 432 Bridge Street East and, a couple of years later, to Eastminster United Church. In 1977, the office moved to the Hastings County Museum, for $30 per month in rent.

For more highlights of the 1970s, check out our blog at quinteartscouncil.org.

The 1980s was the decade when the success of the QAC would cause it to investigate its purpose and mission. Many of the successful programs and events initiated by the council were now being presented by member groups or other organizations. Rather than compete with these groups, it was time to look at new initiatives.

During the 80s, the council’s role was changing and becoming more encompassing. The problem of lack of volunteer resources was getting more difficult. It was also a time when roles, definitions and job descriptions needed to be clearly defined. Artsfest, the program that started it all, would end during the 80s. The Wiser’s Deluxe Series of the Performing Arts would continue its success and another new series would start. The council found a new home at the Queen Mary Community Centre in Belleville, where it would remain until 1994, when it moved to the current location at 36 Bridge Street East in downtown Belleville.

In the next issue of Umbrella, learn about the Music Box Series, Skin Covers and a host of other events and circumstances that have been part of the evolution of the Quinte Arts Council.

If you notice any errors or omissions, please feel free to write us at qac@quinteartscouncil.org.