Developing digital and closer ties with francophone Canada on new NAC CEO’s to do list

Newly elected President and CEO of the National Arts Centre Christopher Deacon shares remarks during a ceremony in Ottawa. iPolitics/Matthew Usherwood

When Christopher Deacon was a young lad in the mid-1960s, his father Bill took him to see the great big hole that was to be the National Arts Centre.

“My dad walked me by and lifted me up and showed me the view.”

The young fellow asked what the hole was all about and his father said: “‘That’s going to be Canada’s National Arts Centre’ and he told me what it was all about. He was working for the Canadian Centennial Commission planning the 100th birthday of Canada. So he was quite into this stuff.”

When the centre finally opened in 1969, Bill Deacon would take Christopher and the rest of the family to the NAC to see everything from ballet to orchestra. The elder Deacon was a music student and a clarinetist, you see.

In a way it’s fitting that that young lad would end up being the first person to rise up the ranks of the NAC to become president and CEO. His appointment was announced on Tuesday morning.

“Believe it or not,” Deacon said in an interview after the announcement, “I worked in the main kitchen here when I was 17 as a summer job. And about 10 years later, at 28, I started working in the music department. I was convinced it would be just for a year or two because who wants to come back to where your parents are. I wanted to go off to San Francisco or Paris or somewhere exciting.”

But one thing led to another and Deacon ended up staying and being promoted through the ranks eventually becoming the managing director of the NAC Orchestra.

“At a certain point I got really hooked,” he said. “When I became managing director of NACO the first big job I had to do was recruit a music director Pinchas Zukerman and if that doesn’t get you addicted to music forever nothing will.”

The kid from Wrightville in Hull from the musical family, studied music at the Conservatory in Hull and then went to the University of Toronto hoping to become a composer.

After university he worked with a composers collective and then with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada. He then took a position with the  Kitchener Symphony and after two years got the call from the NAC.

“I thought, ‘I’m not sure’. I wasn’t convinced. They said come up for an interview and the first question my future boss put to me was, ‘What is it going to take to get you to take this job?’

Thirty years later, he has reached the pinnacle in the organization. Over that time he’s seen the NAC go from the lows of the 1990s to the highs of the new millennium.

He represents, very much, and proudly, a continuation of the direction set by former CEO Peter Herrndorf.

“First of all, Peter Herrndorf is one of the greatest artistic administrators that Canada has produced. It was a great honour working with him and learning from him. But remember I was part of that team. I shared in that vision and those values. I was very chuffed by the leadership and direction that he charted.

“When he asked me three years ago to supervise the renewal of the building I thought he had lost his mind. I mean I’m a music guy, what did I know about concrete and steel. But in conversations with him I started advancing this notion that the project is really about renewing the institution through renewing the building. He seemed to like that.

“I am quite aligned with his vision and values but, having said that, an artistic organization is only going to thrive if it is renewing and changing constantly. So there will be evolutionary change.”

He describes his leadership style this way: “It is essentially about recruiting brilliant people, articulating goals with them, making sure they have resources and managing with a light touch. When you hire brilliant people, they are very motivated and they can chart their own course.”

There are already a lot of projects on the go including the launch of Indigenous Theatre, educational outreach and summer programming.

So what does he want to put his stamp on?

“You are not going to love this answer, but we have laid the table for an amazing amount of change and ambition over the next two years.

“Indigenous Theatre doesn’t start until the fall of 2019. The NAC Creation Fund is funded for the next six years. It will announce its first investments soon. I think that will become a growing file. The building itself gosh we are barely open. There is a lot of change where the table has been set.”

Beyond that, “we have articulated in our strategic plan that we are going to make a bigger investment and connection with francophone cultures. I tried to signal today by speaking a fair bit in French. That will be a big deal for us so I expect to spend more time in the artistic communities of Montreal, Quebec City and across the country.

“I learned a lot about street French in Hull. I’ve always been very interested in French. First of all, my dad studied music in Paris. He was a francophile. He was passionate about French. He spoke French fluently as an anglophone.”

The other initiative he has his sights on will be the NAC’s expanding digital footprint.

“You cannot serve a national stakeholder audience from one city without using digital. Digital is a way of thinking as I see it. Digital (for the NAC) will be everything from program delivery, to learning, to the way we recruit, to the way we communicate and the way we sell tickets … so many things.”

He says different departments inside the NAC will move at different speeds with digital technology, but already there is a desire expressed by NACO musicians for a bigger online presence.

“NACO wants its music out there. We will do more streaming for example. We have reached an agreement with the musicians with regard to rights in the last collective agreement. That’s why we have been recording more in a partnership with Analekta.”

It will likely also mean allowing the use of phones during some performances.

“My sense is that, as these technologies increase and augment our options as producers and presenters, we are going to see more segmentation: If you are coming to this kind of concert, for example, you will get big digital screens, and in other concerts it will be more like the temple experience of profound classical music.”

After all, he said, “a lot of people will experience this music online and may never set foot in this building and they deserve to get great music too.”

It will be baby steps while artists and others get their heads around the implications of technology, he said.

For example, “what I am learning from my colleagues in the English and French theatre departments is there may be a very different attitude on the part of actors. So this has to be done very slowly, in a consultative fashion. I won’t, in some sort of heavy handed way, say this is what we are going to be doing. But, one way or another, the NAC is going to be playing a much bigger role digitally.”

Meanwhile Deacon will continue tweeting @orchrista. He has been an occasional tweeter in the past with more than 600 followers. That just might increase now.

“I love taking photographs and I am fussy about how good they are. So people may see me tweeting and I’m spending the first few minutes editing the photograph. Then I have to tag all the people. Sending a tweet takes me 10 minutes while other people may take 10 seconds. So I don’t do it all that often. But I believe in it. As CEO I’ll be running my own account.”

Deacon is married to Gwen Goodier, an executive at Environment Canada. He has three children: Charlotte, 20, who is studying at St. Andrew’s in Scotland and is on the rowing team; Peter, who just about to turn 30, and works at the Tesla Giga Factory in Arizona and 32 year old Catherine, who lives in West Australia and works for the government of Australia.

Share Post
Written by

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.