The Lawrence House Centre for the Arts, long considered one of the cornerstones of the arts community in Sarnia-Lambton, has responded to a crisis in operational funding by laying off two of its key staff members.
Executive Director Ann Stirling, who joined the organization five years ago, and bookkeeper Jean Vinter, who was hired two years ago, both left just a week before last week's First Friday, a monthly cultural showcase event that Lawrence House helped organize.
Board secretary Bryan Trothen, who was contacted by LambtonShield.com after rumours of the staff reductions surfaced, confirmed the board-authorized action.
He also confirmed the layoffs were precipitated by a lack of operational funding.
"We're ending the year, not in a deficit situation, but a very weak one," said Trothen. "While we [members of the board] had discussed it at our previous meeting, we were reluctant to take action on it."
He added that a long-term fix for the financial situation at the Lawrence House might include having a secure source of operational funding. "If someone would endow us, that would be great, but it hasn't happened and it's pretty unlikely at this point that it will happen."
The organization receives no operational funding from local government, although the city of Sarnia, which owns the historic building (at the corner of Christina St. and Wellington) does fund maintenance and upkeep of the structure.
As far as funding at the county level is concerned, newly elected Lambton County Warden Steve Arnold (also contacted by LambtonShield.com and told of the staff cuts), said he recalls an unsuccessful request for operational funding being made last year. "Requests for operational funding are generally not something we would support on a go-forward basis," Arnold added.
The new warden did suggest that an operational model for cultural groups, where most duties are handled on a volunteer basis rather than by paid staff, seems to be the norm throughout the county, notably in his own St. Clair Township (where Arnold is mayor).
Trothen said for its part Lawrence House will remain focused on programs that "are sustaining themselves," among them "Art Goes to School," which is marketed to individual elementary schools in the area, and "Theatre Goes to School."
Other "sustainable" programs to be continued include an after school arts program, and a noon concert series.
Trothen said that the plan going forward is to have the existing duties of the executive director shared among the remaining staff, with bookkeeping duties to be taken over (at least temporarily) by board chair David Lavender, a local architect.
Stirling, also contacted by LambtonShield.com, said she was proud of her accomplishments while on the job, including having secured funding from the Ontario Arts Council. "We initially were approved for $10,000 a year; six months later (in February of this year) they doubled it to $20,000. While we had received project funding before, that was our first-ever operational grant from the Arts Council."
Stirling added that a lack of funding is nothing new for a great many arts-oriented groups, not just the Lawrence House.