Peter Herrndorf reflects on his decision to step aside and the way forward for the NAC

Peter Herrndorf Photo David Kawai

When Peter Herrndorf assumed the role of president and CEO of the National Arts Centre 18 years ago, he was nervous.

“Anybody walking in should have been a little nervous.”

But his experience at the CBC building The National and at Toronto Life magazine had prepared him.

“Whenever you walk into a situation with an organization in some trouble, and the NAC was in trouble then, the first thing you have to do is reassure the organization by charting a very clear path. And the person has to be relentless about that sense of direction, take some risks and court some unpopularity.”

“The second thing is to recruit terrific people.” Then, he said, the job was to find the necessary resources and “get the hell out of the way.” The fourth thing is to be a cheerleader and a protector.

One might say the Herrndorf method has worked.

In 18 years, much has happened at the NAC: from the creation of a fund-raising arm that allowed the NAC to generate revenues for major projects, to hiring interesting creative people to lead the centre’s departments, to the creation of new departments such as NAC Presents and the Indigenous Theatre, to major investments in the rejuvenation of the building and the compiling of a $25 million creation fund for new work.

“I discovered early, when I was at the CBC, there were other people who made better films than I did. My films were OK but it became clear that my contribution would be to help them do even better and more ambitious films.

That same thinking works in the NAC, he believes. “It’s a nice environment for artists to work in. They have a lot of freedom,” he added in the course of an interview about his decision to leave the NAC next June.

To continue the success of the NAC, he says, the next person in charge will have to be ambitious.

“Most people who are good for these types of organizations will have strong ambitions for the organization.”

Those who know Herrndorf will know he is a passionate sports fan and often uses sports metaphors to make a point.

“If you are a Division Three soccer player in England, you want to play in Division Two. If you’re in Division Two you want Division One. What I love about British soccer is there is a price to be paid for failure.

“In organizations, like the NAC, you have to have real ambitions for the organization and the people in them. You have to give them a chance to showcase their skills at a national and international level. Let them compete against the best in the world and Canadian artists will do very well.”

It means that the arts in Canada need to be funded properly, he acknowledges. Successful organizations have adapted to market circumstances with real skill, he says, but that should never be an excuse for not having a realistic level of public support.

“I happen to believe that if organizations in this country had a little more financial manoeuvring room, the payoff for Canada and for Canadian artists would be extraordinary.”

It also means exploiting all sources of support and one area where there is a potential payoff involves cultural tourism.

“Canadians have been very slow to recognize that (potential). It will require an effort by governments and arts organizations to change that.”

One place where it works is the Toronto International Film Festival, Herrndorf says. Toronto is the centre of film world for about 10 days every September.

For the NAC, the pitch for tourist dollars lies in the summer. This past year was unusual in that the Canada Scene festival had the NAC hopping well into July. Normally the place is dark at that time.

“Among the self-criticisms I would make about the NAC is the fact that we have a poor track record in terms of programming in the summer,” Herrndorf says.

Typically, even though he’s leaving, Herrndorf is determined to redress that gap.

“We have given responsibility for summer programming to (NAC Presents executive producer) Heather Gibson.” Her job will be to come up with a plan for summer at the centre in the next few years.

Herrndorf says he’s very influenced by what has happened over the years at the Lincoln Centre (in New York).

“The Lincoln Centre, like many organizations, used to have staff that had responsibility for programming focused on the period from September to June. Then they went on holidays. That meant the organization gave short shrift to all of the programming possibilities and audience possibilities of the summer.”

That changed about 15 years ago in New York and it’s about to change in Ottawa.

“We have done this poorly. We have not focussed on tourists and the summer because the program departments are intensely engaged in the September to June period. I regret that.”

The NAC knows the tourists will come. An example is just down the road at the Museum of History which, during peak tourist season, does extremely well, Herrndorf says.

He knows people are coming to the capital are looking for things to do.

He hopes the newly lit Kipnes Lantern will give people a clear sense there is something exciting happening inside the NAC.

“I will continue to launch stuff until I’m done. Animating this building is probably near the top of my list of things to do.

“The idea (of the Lantern) is the way it signals accessibility to people. For many years we have signalled subliminally to people ‘Don’t come in unless you have a ticket. Don’t come in unless you have a restaurant reservation or a reception here.’

“What is so important now is we are signalling to everyone this place is for you. Hang out, see free shows, have a cup of coffee … all of that. We will animate all our public spaces in such a way that people will come in to see what’s going on. Over the next five years the day time will be as important to us as the night time.”

So, why leave?

“I decided in the summer essentially when the family was in South Africa on a holiday. We talked about it for several nights sitting over dinner. The timing seemed right. We had just opened the building, the creation fund has succeeded. Kevin Loring (the artistic director of Indigenous Theatre) was hired. If I was going to stay, I realized I would need to stay for up to five years, because that’s the next cycle of development. It seemed like only time to do it.”

Going forward, Herrndorf says, the next few years will bring some projects into focus for his successor, in addition to summer programming.

First involves the digital side of the institution. The NAC is examining the potential of opportunities for engagement between artists and audience through the use of digital media.

“I think we can do that better. We also haven’t gone far enough in using digital to disseminate the performing arts. We have a team focussed on that effort,” he says.

His successor will also be heavily involved in launching the Indigenous Theatre in 2019.

“It’s not going to be a conventional theatre. It’s a totally different animal. Kevin (Loring) is talking about doing work all over the country in communities. He will use theatre as a community building tool.”

And the creation fund will start to invest in projects over the next several months.

Finally the next CEO will be heavily invested in the NAC’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

“We know some of what will happen there. It will start with an international children’s festival in February. We hope to have a major tour of Europe by the NAC Orchestra and a major event in June.

“My successor is going to be busy.”

Herrrndorf has clear ideas on the characteristics of the next NAC CEO.

• A performing arts enthusiast. “The idea of spending two or three nights seeing stuff should be exciting to you not a chore. And you have to enjoy being around creative people. If that is a chore, you shouldn’t be there.

• Strong proven and demonstrated leadership skills. “There is no point in asking a person who has worked on their own, who has never led a complex situation.

• Ambition for organization. “The next CEO has to say Herrndorf was a piker. They have to have real dreams for this place.

• Empathy. “Unless he or she has highly developed interpersonal skills it’s too tough. You have to be comfortable with a range of needs people have.

• External focus. “The region, the country and the world, we are an organization that functions in all three. It’s complex and constantly changing.”

He believes there is a pool of about 25 individuals in Canada who could do the job which will be filled by the board of the NAC.

Even though he’s moving on, it’s not like Herrndorf will retreat to his back garden. He has been named the chair of the Luminato Festival in Toronto for 2018. “I’ll do other things like that,” he says, admitting to regrets.

“In my 18th year I find this place more interesting, more stimulating, with more stuff to do. It’s not as if I’m gliding to a conclusion. It’s tough to give up.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.