SPARC Interviews… Gordon Duff of Minto, ON

For the first interview in a new series that will appear on our blog, Network Coordinator Rebecca Ballarin spends some time chatting with SPARC member Gordon Duff. Gord has been engaged with SPARC since it began in 2014, and is leading an active team of volunteers in Minto that are very engaged with SPARC and are organizing a regional “mini-SPARC Symposium” in October of this year.  

R: Tell us a bit about yourself, the many roles you play in Minto, and your connections to the performing arts community.

G: I am a native of Waterloo, Ontario and a graduate of the business admin program at Wilfred Laurier University. After a career in public accounting, I joined the municipal sector (in 2002), so officially I am Treasurer/Deputy CAO and I also assist with cultural planning and economic development, sitting on various committees.

I have also been the treasurer of the Minto Arts Council since its inception in 1997 – not that I have any artistic talent, but I support the work of artists in the town by keeping the books, filing the reports and I help to run the Basement Café (a coffeehouse-style music event hosted by the Arts Council), and I am on the Ontario Task Force for Culture Days.

How long have you been on the Task Force for Culture Days?

About five years – and this is a direct product of SPARC, because Aubrey Reeves attended the presentation we made [at the 2014 SPARC Symposium] and she followed up and asked if I would like to be on that.

And how did you get involved with the arts council when it started? How were you brought on board?

I had a friend who is an artist and there was maybe a group of 8 people or so, and I was still in public accounting, and I remember he came in to the office and said “Hey! Do you want to join this? We need somebody to keep the books!” So that’s how!

And that’s how I got into doing the [TIFF] Film Circuit too – I’m the programmer for the Minto edition of the Film Circuit. And what makes our theatre unusual is that we’re one of the few municipally owned movie theatres. So there are some hours worked by a paid staff member, but it’s all volunteers who take the tickets and run the concessions stand and all that.

So prior to getting involved in the Arts Council, did you have any involvement with arts organizations? Were you an avid patron of the arts? Or was that really the beginning of your involvement with the arts community?

I used to go to TIFF on my own before I was involved with that, but otherwise no, this was probably the beginning. I wasn’t involved in the arts at school or anything like that.

How would you describe the performing arts community in Minto?

I’d say for a community of our size, which is about 9,500, we have a pretty vigorous arts community. We have a local theatre guild [the Grey Wellington Theatre Guild] that just celebrated it’s 40th anniversary a few years ago, and our Arts Council is 21 years old, and there’s a Minto Dance Academy that’s been around for 40 years too. So even though this is a traditionally agricultural community, we have these organizations that have been around for a long time, it’s not a recent development. So, you know, you build on what you’ve got.

What does communication and collaboration look like in the community?

I think collaboration has gotten better in the last few years. Frequently, the theatre guild would hold something the same night as the Legion, and stuff like that. So the Town, we’ve tried to put together meeting places – both electronic and real – to try and communicate more, and we’ve put up a calendar so everyone can see what’s going on.

You’ve got to buy into the concept that we’re not really competing, we’re trying to compliment… and then we can continue to grow.

What was your first introduction to SPARC? 

Minto held a Rural Creative Economy Summit in the Fall of 2013 and Rachel Gillooly [2014 & 2016 SPARC Symposium Project Coordinator] attended that summit. She approached us afterwards and asked if we would like to do a presentation at the first SPARC symposium in Haliburton.

So our Mayor, a community member, and I ran a workshop titled “The Cultural Roundtable – Empowering and Engaging the Rural Community”. We were talking about who makes up a cultural roundtable and what they do and the process of taking a municipal budgetary allocation and translating that to try to meet the needs of different stakeholders.

After that I attended the Summit in the fall of 2014, and the 2016 Symposium as well.

What made you want to host a community consultation in Minto?  

I had remained involved with SPARC, and I thought that would be a good way to raise interest and inform people in our area about SPARC. I’d say no one [here] was engaged with SPARC to a great degree at that point.

What was learned at the first consultation? What were some exciting outcomes? 

There are so many community theatre groups within an hour and half of Minto! There were many, many groups that I didn’t know existed. I found that overall there was a willingness to work together, but a difficulty in knowing how. And that has shifted as we’ve continued to meet and talk, we’re finding more ways “how”. And network building was definitely positive – connecting with people working in other communities. For that consultation I reached out to everyone who had attended the SPARC symposium from about Stratford to Owen Sound, as well as other people that I might have known locally. And we had about 42 people there in attendance. I would like to keep doing that – bringing some groups here to learn from what they’re doing.


What is the group in Minto planning now? 

We’re planning a mini-SPARC symposium for October of this year. We are in the process of solidifying what topics we want to cover – probably audience development and marketing – and what speakers we will have in. We are hoping that the reach (in terms of attendees) will be similar to our first consultation.

Are there any other initiatives happening in the community right now that you would like to share with SPARC members? 

Hopefully we will do Culture Days again. We did a Culture Bus in the past – what will happen this year is still in development.

Harriston used to be the site of a Canada Packers ice cream and butter plant that closed in the early 90s. They’re having a reunion this summer so a couple different committees are working on a public art campaign to put metal ice cream cones down the main street that will be painted by different artists.

And our Arts Council just had a very successful concert last week. Everything we did in 2017 wasn’t necessarily the most successful in terms of attendance, so we mixed it up. We held it on a Friday instead of a Saturday, we served wine – it went really well. So one of our colleagues pulled together a quick survey to try to determine what we did right. We’ve done a few things wrong [in the past] obviously, not always connecting with the audience, so looking at that survey is one of the things we’re working on.

And that survey, did it go out after the fact?

Actually a board member pulled together a survey that very day, and we put it out on tables and we had the emcee announce that you would have a chance to enter a draw for free tickets if you filled out the survey. So we did a personal approach and got a pretty good response rate.

What is one tip you would give, or something you would like to say, to others working in the performing arts in rural and remote areas?

Keep an open mind and be alert to involving newcomers into existing arts organizations and try to meet the challenge to overcome volunteer burnout and replenish retiring workers. We are getting a lot of city people coming up here and may have a lot of skills and interests to offer: How do you reach out to them? How do you know they’re here? How do they know you’re here? And engaging youth as well. There are lots of Youth Action Councils that have sprung up over the past few years – we have one and there is a young woman on it who has an interest in the arts so we have her acting as the student liaison on the arts council. So that’s hopeful.

Have you found anything helpful in terms of managing volunteer burnout in the past?

We had Reva Cooper in from Waterloo and she did a whole series of chats on volunteer recruitment and retention and I guess the biggest thing we learned was to try and shift our thinking from getting “lifetime volunteers” to finding people that maybe want to work more on a project by project basis. They don’t want to make a big commitment but there’s still interest there. So that’s one way that organizations can maybe be a bit more flexible. But you do still need those long-term volunteers for continuity too.

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