All the world’s a stage for Peter Herrndorf as he exits the NAC

Peter Herrndorf. Photo: David Kawai

As he nears the end of his tenure at the National Arts Centre, Peter Herrndorf has started to reflect on his time as CEO.

“There are lots of regrets,” he said in a recent interview. “Recently I got to a concert late. The Toronto Symphony was playing and I snuck in a side door, sat down in an aisle seat and thought to myself: ‘How am I going to exist without all of this’

“There are moments when it hits you. This has been such a wonderful life, I can’t imagine not being part of it.”

For 19 years, Herrndorf has led the national performing arts centre and when he signs off on June 2 at about 11 p.m., with a lifetime achievement award in the performing arts (a honour he helped to found in 1982) from the governor general, he will be entering another stage in an illustrious career that has already included running CBC-TV public affairs, TVOntario and Toronto Life magazine.

He will head to Toronto where he will be the chairman of the Luminato Festival, Master of Arts at Massey College in the University of Toronto and one other position to be announced in coming weeks.

“The thought of not being reasonably engaged is not very appealing,” the man said by way of explanation.

His time at the NAC has been a great run.

Among the highlights:

• The creation of the National Arts Centre Foundation which has raised tens of millions for the activities of the NAC, for music education and for other endeavours across Canada;

• The NAC Presents series of concerts by Canadian artists;

• The creation of a Department of Indigenous Theatre which will open in the fall of 2019;

• A $25 million Creation Fund that will inject millions into the creation of world class performing arts works;

• A $110 million addition to the centre that signals a new openness to the community at the NAC;

• And a $114 million overhaul of the inner workings of the performing spaces of the NAC that will be finsihed by the fall of 2018.

There have been NACO tours across Canada, to China and to the United Kingdom. And much more.

Any one of these accomplishments would be a life’s work for an aspiring arts administrator. No wonder Herrndorf is getting accolades from places such as Memorial University where he just received an honourary doctorate.

When he spoke with ARTSFILE, Herrndorf was his usual thoughtful and jovial self. He’s been thinking about what he leaves behind.

He knows the NAC will face some issues.

“First of all there are issues that have to do with the quality of programming in the NAC. Then there are questions of recruitment, audience development, huge questions around funding, fund-raising and how you do it. Can the NAC continue to raise private money from across the country? Then there are the works in progress that need to continue.

“In a few weeks, we will announce the first batch of investments by the Creation Fund. That has to continue. The Indigenous Theatre needs to be launched. Several of the issues that are alive that will be very dependent of the energy, drive and focus on the next CEO and the team here.” By the way he says he knows and approves of the person selected to replace him, but not surprisingly wouldn’t reveal the name. The announcement of the appointment is imminent.

There is little doubt that 2017 was a wonderful year for arts organizations nationally. But now many are on the dark side of that shiny moment.

Not so the NAC, Herrndorf says.

“We have a 50th anniversary celebration to look forward to. It is energizing our team. The energy from the Indigenous Theatre will also be very important.”

In the fall of 2019, the NAC will be fully immersed in the Indigenous project.

“This whole place, for a period of a few weeks, will be engaged with Indigenous theatre. It will be a remarkable time. A national organization will be saying in effect that all of our program disciplines will help launch Indigenous theatre.”

The country should take note, Herrndorf believes. Culture is a matter of citizenship and community building. It can lead.

“The NAC is engaged in that in a big way. I just came back from Seattle where I met with performing arts centre colleagues from the U.S.

“While we are doing this kind of work vis a vis Indigenous culture in Canada, the New Jersey Performing Arts Centre, for example, has become a hub in Newark for the rebuilding of that community for black artists and black citizens.

“The arts are a more likely solution for the rebuilding of broken communities. They can be a safe place where conversations can take place.”

In 1969, the National Arts Centre reflected the conventional wisdom of the country at the time, he said. It was an English and French place. In 2019, a new and different view of Canada is being reflected in the NAC. Three pillars, English, French and Indigenous, are side by side working together and collaborating, Herrndorf said.

In 2019 too, visitors to Ottawa can expect to see the NAC starting to re-enter the summer programming market in a major way. It will build slowly, he said. And it will be part of the overall effort to change the visitor experience to the centre.

“It’s a very different NAC now,” he said. “When place is packed it feels very comfortable. It is a big change from all those years when we signalled, subliminally, that unless you had a ticket you weren’t welcome. Now we are signalling explicitly, ‘Come on in, you are welcome’.”

As the NAC is changing, Herrndorf recognizes that Ottawa too is changing around it.

“The funny part of it is that the impetus for us doing all these major changes (to the building) was the LRT. … And the years from 2017 to 2019 had huge impact on our determination to do the planning, spend money, hire architects, all in the hope that it could trigger major change.”

One of the first things Herrndorf did when he arrived at the NAC was to start the foundation.

“When I came in there were a number of things I had reached conclusions about. One was that this place tended to wait for government funding. If the funding was good, times were good. If funding was low, it was famine.”

His very first conversation with the centre’s board of trustees was that the NAC needed a revenue stream that wasn’t related to government.

“The foundation is part of that. The parking lot is part of that. That idea has been driving the place ever since.”

He’s also been a savvy player when it comes to dealing with political leaders and that can have surprising results.

“I sometimes tease Stephen Harper about the fact that his government was much more generous to the arts than Conservatives let on. And Mike Harris launched all the major capital initiatives for the arts in the 1990s in Ontario.

“Politicians often reach conclusions that the arts are a good way to establish a sense of community and bona fides in government without spending a zillion dollars” on pipelines or other massive investments.

Winning a governor general’s award was actually a little embarrassing for Herrndorf.

“I have said to my colleagues that it was lovely to get it, but there are other people who deserve to get this more. Still I’m happy to do it.”

He’s also rightly proud of the history of these awards.

“We opened the second hall of honour in the NAC and it is really impressive. I took some people through it and they were dazzled by the list. There are 240 Canadian artists on the walls. It is really something that over 25 years we have been able to honour that many great artists.”

Fitting then that he leaves the place he has led to so much distinction with a gala and a gong.

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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.