• By: Luke Barry

Surveying the playing field

ABOVE: Matías Muñoz and Anthony Cardozo of Cinqhole, a live music venue in Hintonburg.

The future of events and performance series: Cinqhole, The Art House Café, LIVE! on Elgin

When the centres of cultural cultivation close, communities suffer.

The patrons who find themselves in these brick and mortar environments have undoubtedly felt the loss of connection and collective identity the past number of months.

Same goes for the artists and creatives who rely on these spaces as outlets for their craft alongside the individuals who keep them running.

With digital streams being ubiquitous and Zoom fatigue setting in, Ottawa-Gatineau’s segue into stage three has provided a breath of fresh air for folks yearning for genuine face time in familiar confines.

But the social aspect of the lockdown is one thing.

It is also a matter of economics and people trying to earn a living while keeping businesses afloat.

So what exactly does the future of live events and performance look like for local venues in these pandemic times?

It depends on who you ask or where, again, people find themselves.

RBC Bluesfest, the biggest musical festival of the calendar year, is currently showcasing top talent via drive-in concerts.

Central Art Garage in Chinatown, an art space and framing studio set in a reclaimed auto mechanics garage, has recently implemented curbside viewing to allow patrons to peruse artwork staged on the outside of the gallery.

For Matías Muñoz, Anthony Cardozo and Eric Scharf, the crew behind Cinqhole in Hintonburg, the pandemic placed a pause on live music many months in the making.

“It actually worked out kind of in our favour, trying to look at everything in an optimistic light,” Muñoz said. “Things have slowed down a lot, we’ve done a few livestreams and stuff, but other than that we’re just focused on the renovations and staying positive.”

The threesome embraced the downtime to tweak some of Cinqhole’s interior in order to secure a permanent liquor license and pivot towards more multidisciplinary usage of the space.

“Our thing is hopefully being able to reopen as a studio,” Muñoz said. “We just have all the equipment, the back line and the space, the soundproofing isn’t perfect, but for bands that aren’t as concerned about that stuff, hopefully that’ll be our first step of reopening.

“Hopefully we can reopen as a rehearsal studio and keep doing our photography studio, video studio stuff, but as far as the (live music) venue thing goes, it’s an indefinite hiatus.”

The Art House Café owner and art director Geneviève Bétournay with marketing and events director Kimberley Dawkins.

In Centretown, The Art House Café has taken an experimental approach to opening back up.

“We didn’t really do that much for the beginning part (of the pandemic),” owner and art director Geneviève Bétournay explained. “It took us a month then we put out the art and we only opened for take-out at the beginning of June.

“We had one event minimum per day, so it was non-stop and that went to zero so we had to contact everybody, ticket holders, the performers, and just put everything on hold indefinitely.”

Given that necessity is the mother of invention, Bétournay and her team have been forced to get creative during these trying times.

“Until we are able to start making the kind of revenue that we need, we can’t stop throwing ideas and seeing what sticks and what gives us enough because we’re still not there and I mean a lot of it is just that we’re not getting as much traffic,” she said. “What we were selling before, which was an experience and events, the energy of the space, we just can’t sell any of that anymore.

“With the social distancing restrictions still in place, it wouldn’t really be worth it for us to have a show and sell tickets just because we’re such an intimate space, it would make it really difficult for us to be able to break even let’s say and be able to pay the artist.”

One of the persistent challenges over the course of time for Bétournay and Kimberley Dawkins, the café’s marketing and events director, has been adjusting their business to the ever-changing protocols.

“So much in this industry is about being proactive and about being prepared, and so now it’s all turned on its head where you can try to prepare but it almost doesn’t help,” Dawkins said.

Their annual House of Luck charity event, regular jazz nights and live drawing series are all on the backburner until further notice.

Bétournay likened it to being in a constant state of crisis.

“Everything’s unpredictable, yet you have to be super adaptable and flexible and stay on top of things and change every week let alone day to day,” she said. “Every week we’ve changed our hours, it’s very wait and see and reactionary. For example, the extension of the rent subsidy got announced two days before the extension.”

Jon Evenchick is the owner of LIVE! on Elgin. The venue is back open with safety protocols in place.

On the other side of Centretown, staging live performances is the lone revenue stream for LIVE! on Elgin.

And while the opportunity to resume operations was the lifeline owner and booking manager Jon Evenchick had been waiting for, it’s been hectic gearing up again.

“We had to cancel everything in March, and then we were given a week’s notice to put together a full calendar of programming,” he said. “It’s a condensed timeline from what I’m used to for sure. We’re completely indoors, so we weren’t able to open up when they opened patios.”

The majority of July saw Evenchick working to ensure that safety protocols were in place for performers and patrons alike, that the room’s newly minted seating guidelines could maximize business, and that the quality of bookings would woo concertgoers.

August 2nd marked the first performance at LIVE! on Elgin since the province entered a state of emergency back in March.

“From the people I’ve been talking to, there’s still a lot of cautiousness I guess I’d say about going back out to indoor venues,” Evenchick said. “If the option is to stay at home and be safe or maybe take a little bit of a risk just because the venue is open, you know a lot of people are going to stay at home.

“But we’ve had people message us and ask how they can support without coming out to the bar which is great and the community is still there, people want to see us succeed.”