A student-led home for the arts: Sadleir House looks to serve community

Despite the effects of COVID-19 on many beloved Peterborough arts and music venues, Sadleir House has weathered the worst of the pandemic. Looking toward the future, the House pledges to reflect its values: inclusivity, community and student leadership.

For the better part of two decades, Sadleir House has been a fixture of off-campus cultural life for Trent University students. It sits, grand and resplendent, along a northern stretch of George Street that serves as a thoroughfare to Peterborough’s downtown, the location symbolic of the House’s role as a bridge between the Symons campus and the broader community. 

Like many arts institutions, the COVID-19 pandemic has reoriented some of what Sadleir House can offer, even if temporarily, given that its best asset is in the provision of creative workspace to students and community members.

While some local arts venues were unable to weather the simultaneous storms of pandemic-driven economic precariousness and urban gentrification — The Spill is a notable loss for the downtown community — Sadleir House has stepped up to fill in the gaps. Its latest effort is an official Twitch channel to broadcast live-streamed events, with a production quality high enough to stand out from fray of the Internet.

During the province’s multiple stay-at-home orders the staff at Sadleir House also seized an opportunity to renovate the building’s interior. Renovations have optimized the heritage Queen Anne design to better function as a place for showcasing visual art.

Paintings by John Climenhage hang above student study space in the Hobbs Library of Sadleir House. (Photo: Ayesha Barmania)

Moving forward, Sadleir House aims to make connecting with art an open and approachable experience for young people in Peterborough, in the recognition that with pandemic-related closures available spaces for art have become rare. As the doors re-open to local Peterborough venues, the House has ramped up its programming, continuing to play a vital role in a city that is growing rapidly hostile to arts and culture.

A return to the early values of Trent University

Sadleir House was established in 2003 by a group of students under the name The Downtown Student Facility Trust (now the PRCSA, or P.R. Community & Student Association) in an effort to protect downtown colleges from permanent closure.

As a university-adjacent, student-led community centre, it has played host to many a conference, film screening, music concert and poetry reading, and offers office accommodation to organizations like Arthur Newspaper, the Kawartha World Issues Centre and the Community Race Relations Committee. When I visit, the building is quietly humming with these various energies.

The space also operates according to a by-the-students, for-the-students ethos, with its Board of Directors primarily made up of current and former Trent attendees.

In conversation with Matt Jarvis, the House’s facility manager, it becomes clear that the mandate of Sadleir House — to be open and accommodating to young people, and to pay heed to what young people have to offer — in fact reflects the early directive of Trent University itself. The university was initially established by a citizens’ committee with the goal of integrating students into a city looking to revitalize as manufacturing in Peterborough waned.

That Sadleir House in its present form was not only saved from closure by student groups in the early aughts, but that these groups navigated the purchase of the former estate in order to establish an open-arms community cultural centre, is a spirit that continues to charge Sadleir House today in its many-faceted identity.

In our conversation, Jarvis emphasizes how Sadleir House is afforded flexibility and openness in the way it operates owing to the fact that its funding comes through non-commercial avenues — student levy fees provide the bulk of the House’s annual financing, while government grants and modest rental rates prop up the rest.

Matt Jarvis is the facility manager of Sadleir House. (Photo: Ayesha Barmania)

Though a cultural centre, the House does not adhere to rigid arts programming, instead Jarvis prioritizes the maintenance of infrastructure to allow things to run smoothly. By Jarvis’ estimation, if the structure is sound, the rest will follow. It isn’t “anything goes” at Sadleir House, but there is ample room there to try things out, to be heartily amateur, and to enjoy creativity without the usual limitations set by art industry standards.

Experimentation and expression have become key tenets of the way the House functions, this coupled with the removal of barriers — like exhibition fees or demonstration of pedigree — to young people engaging in the arts. Sadleir House can afford to prioritize people over profit with open, adaptable and friendly programming precisely because it is not a business.

“A lot happens when folks come together in a room to talk,” says Jarvis, alluding to the non-prescriptive stance the House takes when it comes to programming arts and culture, and referencing the first House rule to “Be Kind” above all else.

On now: retrospective of local painter John Climenhage

The first art exhibition since the interior renovations is The Climenhage Project, a retrospective of 20 years of local painter John Climenhage’s work. The show opened on Friday with an evening of poetic responses, literary readings and video screenings by artists and writers Bruce Whiteman, Justin Million, Bad Mayor, and the arts and culture journal Trout in Plaid

Climenhage is a prolific maker, and the evolution of his painterly style is showcased nicely throughout the House. Abstract and figurative works adorn nearly every wall with Climenhage’s signature heavy brushstroke. True to the artist’s wishes, the works are complimentary to the space — they don’t stand out necessarily, but rather fill each room with rich colour and texture.

Paintings by John Climenhage adorn the walls as part of a 20-year retrospective of the prolific local artist. (Photo: Ayesha Barmania)

There are Impressionistic en plein air renderings of beloved Peterborough sites: Inverlea Bridge, various places along the Otonabee, a West End laneway or the ubiquitous view of the lower George Street No Frills at sunset, all in possession of a distinctly Group of Seven nostalgia. Another series depicts the blurred and speeding bodies of hockey players as they hasten across white ice. Athletes face off in an almost Duchampian composition, the rush of the game conveyed via a splintering of the visual field, as if a camera shutter has been released twice to capture velocity in successive moments. 

The exhibition of this body of work is reflective of Sadleir House’s ethos: skillful and professional, yet casual and approachable. Not too precious. As an example, in one of the upstairs Common Rooms, three enormous canvases sit resting against walls. The feeling is comfortable and homey, like being in the artist’s studio. The House indeed makes a great home for Climenhage’s paintings, which are best seen in sequence.

If The Climenhage Project is any indication, Sadleir House is sure to be an excellent destination for art and culture in the months and years to come.

Sarah Messerschmidt is an arts writer, researcher and practitioner with a focus on experimental and documentary film. At present she works on a creative research project in collaboration with Umam D&R, a Beirut-based NGO with a substantial film archive, as well as Arsenal – Institut für Film und Videokunst e.V. and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin. The project looks in particular at a small selection of recently digitized film reels from an historic film production studio in Lebanon, and formulates creative responses to this material within a framework that centers discourse on archival practices. Though not a filmmaker, she can often be found writing/thinking/researching topics that relate to film. She is also an avid film watcher. In general, Sarah is interested in “trans-local” arts organizing, and fostering community through artistic practice. 


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