Smiths Falls entrepreneur kept the music playing in the darkest days of the pandemic

Matthew Connell and Ambre McLean, co-owners and founders of the Arts Hub, a music and drama school, art gallery and gift shop. Photo provided

In early 2020, Ambre McLean opened the Arts Hub in Smiths Falls, intending to offer music lessons, drama classes and art workshops.

Together with three partners, she signed a lease on a building on Main Street just two weeks before the onset of the pandemic, or, in McLean’s words, “the world shut down and the zombies came.”

Looking back, McLean says keeping the business alive during two years of sporadic lockdowns actually strengthened her connection to the community and her business model.

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“So, I’m like, ok, what do we all do that we’re really good at?” recalls the third-generation Canadian musician. “We started an online music school, I purchased a whole bunch of percussion instruments, and we drove them around and did doorstop drops to young kids and did toddler classes.”

She asked parents to log on at 11 a.m. on Saturdays and give their kids the computer so that she and her team could play music with them for an hour. At the same time, she started offering online concerts every Friday night.

The popularity of these concerts prompted people to make unsolicited donations just to make sure the events continued.

“We were very lucky to have those ideas and have them work for us, because we would have lost the building – we wouldn’t have been able to pay for it, because we couldn’t work, either. We couldn’t play, we couldn’t do what our jobs are,” says McLean.

“In an odd way, the online concerts helped to keep me connected to the people we spent time with and things we were doing before pandemic lockdown,” says Amy Rensby, a local resident who frequently tuned into the concerts.

Since that time, two of McLean’s original partners have moved on and the Arts Hub is now owned by McLean and her husband, Matt Connell, a drummer, vocalist, videographer and sound artist.  

McLean’s grandparents were amateur musicians and her parents were professional musicians. Her father, Peter McLean, was with Vancouver rock group High Flying Bird, which opened for Jethro Tull, Fleetwood Mac and Steve Miller. McLean’s mother, folksinger Sharon Smith, was a national festival circuit folk singer.

For McLean and Connell, the arts is a way of life. Both are accomplished professional musicians and multi-instrumentalists who’ve toured Canada and the U.S. multiple times. With young children now, they decided to settle in Smiths Falls and tour less.

Today, the Arts Hub is thriving as a music and drama school, gift store and gallery, and multimedia studio. McLean credits the connections she made during the pandemic for some of the Hub’s success.  

The idea behind the Arts Hub was simple. McLean, a new transplant to Smiths Falls, recognized that the traditionally sports and hockey town needed a dedicated arts space.

“We wanted to do something that was a meeting place for all the artsy people … because we never seem to have a place to go,” chuckles McLean.

The school offers drama and musical theatre classes, as well as piano, guitar, banjo, ukulele and flute lessons, along with song-writing classes. Instructors are professional musicians and performers or music educators.  

With a $5,000 municipal grant, McLean purchased a point-of-sales terminal and iPad and developed a logo, signage and decals. She installed shelving, counters and display tables and launched ads to support the Hub.

“I was able to stretch it pretty far because I’m handy and was able to do most of the labour involved,” says McLean, who admits to not being so comfortable with business concepts.

“The same passion that you throw into the art part is often very hard when we’re trying to throw it into the business part, because we don’t think like that. I found learning how to write a business plan the most useful portion of the (municipal) program,” says McLean.

Tapping into another funding stream, McLean is also able to support local visual artists.

The On the Roll program launched in 2017 to support live music events. In 2022, the program funded six art exhibits or programs with up to $2,500 per event.

“This funding has allowed us to provide our featured artists with honorariums for their exhibits,” says McLean.

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