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Winnipeg Jets fans cheer as their team plays the Montreal Canadiens during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Winnipeg, Oct. 9, 2011. (FRED GREENSLADE/FRED GREENSLADE / REUTERS)
Winnipeg Jets fans cheer as their team plays the Montreal Canadiens during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Winnipeg, Oct. 9, 2011. (FRED GREENSLADE/FRED GREENSLADE / REUTERS)

Theatre

Arts in Winnipeg: caught in Jet wash? Add to ...

On a Wednesday evening in Winnipeg, the puck is set to drop at the same moment that the curtain rises – 7:30 pm.

Driving through the city's re-energized downtown, 90 per cent of the people walking along Portage Street – mostly men, and mostly young – are sporting jerseys with the new Winnipeg Jets logo. They're on their way to pack MTS Centre to the rafters as the home team battles the Dallas Stars in their quest for a playoff position.

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Five minutes away by car, the Winnipeggers pouring into the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Warehouse are distinguished by more than their comparatively conservative dress code; they're mostly older, more female than male, and preparing to see Canadian theatre all-star Martha Henry tear up the stage in the play August: Osage Country.

Comparing the crowds of 15,004 at the MTS Centre and 241 at the Warehouse, you might get the impression that hockey matches and Pulitzer-winning plays don't have much of a crossover audience.

And yet, a mystery has arisen: Since the Jets returned home this season to huge fanfare, large arts institutions such as the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and Manitoba Opera have all reported drops in attendance.

An article in the Winnipeg Free Press documenting the phenomenon in December was headlined “NHL's gain is arts groups’ pain,” while a recent Conference Board of Canada study suggests that Manitoba's capital is not big enough to support the Jets, a CFL team and all its other entertainment options.

Winnipeg's not-for-profit arts organizations are careful not to single out the city's prodigal sports team for their troubles, but the theory that the NHL is eating up leisure time and dollars in this city of almost 700,000 is hard to avoid as an explanation for why cultural groups are struggling in an economy hitherto shielded from the effects of the recession.

“There are whole bunch of factors and I think that among them is increased entertainment options,” says Camilla Holland, the new general manger of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, which just revealed this week that it's facing a $300,000 deficit this season – its first unplanned dip into the red since 1998.

“Our artistic director [Steven Schipper]knows this city and is really careful with his programming. I think that's why this year is a bit of a shock.”

Winnipeg has always punched above its weight culturally, in part because of a geographic isolation that has resulted in a community that invests in itself.

“People talk about the cold and the mosquitoes, but we have the oldest Canadian ballet company, the first modern dance company, the oldest French-language theatre company, the first regional theatre,” says Jeff Herd, executive director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

“Per capita, [other cities]would be envious by the percentage of people who go to any kind of live entertainment.”

MTC has long had subscription numbers to make theatre companies in larger Canadian cities envious. This year, they have 15,500 subscribers to their main stage season – which means they have more season-ticket holders than the Jets, whose 15,000-seat arena is the smallest in the NHL.

But even those 15,500 subscribers mark an unexpected drop of 10 per cent from the previous year. raises the question: Are certain Winnipeggers choosing to watch the Jets cross the Stars over the star-crossed lovers of Romeo and Juliet?

The timing of MTC’s slump suggests that may be the case. In March and April last year, subscription renewals were tracking in the usual range – but then came the revelation that the Jets were returning on May 31. “Our dip came after the Jets announcement,” Holland says.

(Season tickets for the Jets went on sale June 4 and sold out within 17 minutes. The waiting list has been capped at 8,000.)

The Winnipeg Art Gallery also reported a surprise 10-per-cent drop in walk-up attendance this autumn, though executive director Stephen Borys says things have picked up since. (He's particularly pleased with the numbers the gallery's new Norman Rockwell exhibition is bringing in.)

Still, Borys is feeling the effect of the Jets in another part of the constantly shifting puzzle that is balancing the books for a not-for-profit arts organization: fundraising.

“Where I see the shortfall is, there are struggles with our corporate support,” he says. “I love having the Jets here, but you know every corporate box needs to be filled.”

Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra has noted its own unexpected drop in attendance. The pops program – designed to attract a more general audience than classical and new work – has seen a 10- to 15-per-cent decline in single-ticket sales.

And at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet – just a hop, skip and jete away from the home of the Jets – attendance is expected to be down around 10 or 12 per cent by the end of the season.

Herd is cautious about blaming hockey fever for this any more than he'd blame it for one of Winnipeg's warmest winters on record. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is a touring company, after all, and he's seen similar issues affecting markets across Canada and North America where the Jets are obviously not a factor.

“I think there's no doubt in any city in the world that any large change has an impact on the spending patterns of a city,” Herd says. “I'm also a great believer in more is better – growth is good … It's just a matter of adjustment to accommodate that growth.”

Herd and other local arts executives are clear that the Jets have had many positive effects, from city spirit to a safer and busier city centre. “Evening downtown activity in any Western Canadian city is a wonderful thing,” Herd notes. (The Ballet has actually had a slight financial boost from the Jets, thanks to its parking lot's proximity to MTS Centre.)

For his part, Kevin Donnelly, senior vice-president of True North Sports and Entertainment – which owns the Jets and the MTS Centre – recently found himself dealing personally with the question of arts versus sports. His pre-purchased tickets to the Manitoba Theatre Centre clashed with an important Jets game on TV and he had to make a choice.

“You have to admit there is new competition for people's time and attention and of course money,” says Donnelly, who ultimately chose to attend the theatre.

At the same time, True North hasn't observed the same dip as the not-for-profits in their programming at the MTS Centre – which includes rock concerts, family entertainment and monster truck rallies. “We've been very consistent with previous years,” says Donnelly.



What's perhaps most interesting about the simmering debate over the Jets versus the arts is how it breaks down stereotypes about who supports various urban institutions.

Coming from Toronto, where she was previously general manger of the Tarragon Theatre, Holland was fascinated to find no “great divide” between those who support culture and those who support sports in the 'Peg. “For me, it's a bit of a surprise to have a board of directors, I'd say 75 per cent of whom are my most committed advocates and also are Jets subscribers,” she says.

Indeed, organizations in the city are frequently intertwined. Jim Ludlow, president and CEO of True North Sports and Entertainment, sits on the board of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and has been paying attention to its struggles with attendance.

“Some people have tried to suggest that the Jets coming to Winnipeg has perhaps cannibalized the arts organizations – and I just don't think that's accurate,” he says.

Likewise, local artists are just as excited about the return of the Jets as anyone else in town. At the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, musicians were enthused when French horn player Patricia Evans won a “Take a Jet to Work” contest that resulted in centre Jim Slater coming to join in rehearsals.

While Slater couldn't get a note out of Evans' horn, he did borrow the conductor's baton to take the orchestra through a few bars of Antonin Dvorak's New World Symphony. “He's a great hockey player, but he doesn't seem to have a great sense of the beat,” says the orchestra's executive director Trudy Schroeder.

Even if they are suffering this season, casting a cloud over Jets madness isn’t something arts institutions see as beneficial. “We would never want to … even suggest that there's a negative feeling on our part,” she says.

At MTC, with a looming deficit, the question is how to accentuate the positives in a hockey-mad city in a hockey-mad country.

“We just need to reframe a little bit and remind people that, in the same way that people are so keen to watch a hockey game live, art is best experienced live,” Holland says.

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