NAC at 50: For CEO Christopher Deacon the future is all about diverse audiences

Christopher Deacon is the president and CEO of the NAC. Photo: Peter Robb

One of the issues confronting the National Arts Centre since its beginning 50 years ago is how to square its national role with its physical location.

It is a job that has been passed from each president and CEO to the next. And it’s no different for Christopher Deacon.

Each leader handles it differently but in Deacon’s case, he has made it a priority to reach out to diverse cultural communities.

Deacon’s goal is to continue the evolution of the NAC. He’s not bringing revolution, certainly during this anniversary year.

“This is about taking it to the next level,” he said in a recent interview with ARTSFILE. There is continuity the centre’s board too as the chairperson Adrian Burns has another four year appointment. That pleases Deacon, who has risen through the ranks at the centre. He knows who is dance partner is.

“(Former CEO) Peter Herrndorf said to me if there is one thing you can do in your five year mandate it is put the NAC on a new footing for the future.

“I feel that what I’m trying to do is have the ship turn a corner and embrace a younger, more diverse audience that is more inclusive.” He wants to “orient the institution so it looks and feels different.”

The NAC has a number of projects that are still evolving.

“We have a new building which presents whole new range of opportunities. That’s a very big thing.

“We raised the money for a $25 million National Creation Fund and now we have started to disperse the funds. It won’t last forever, but it’s a major initiative to help change the performing arts landscape in Canada.

“The third big given for the NAC is Indigenous theatre. We are well into the planning for it.” The new theatre department led by Kevin Loring will launch in September with what is being called an Indigenous takeover of the centre.

“Those three things will position the NAC to redefine its relationship with Canada and Canadians,” Deacon said.

Deacon has also begun a new strategic planning process with management and the board that will start the NAC’s second 50 years. Expect some clarity on that vision in 2020.

“You could hang this process under an umbrella of engaging with all Canadians,” he said. “There is always a challenge in the performing arts that there is a sense that this is an elitist endeavour that you have to wear a tux to attend, which is something everyone at the NAC forcefully rejects.” But if the NAC is used and useful, it will be well situated for the future, he said.

On his very first day, Deacon signalled that one of the things he wanted to change was the perception that the corporate NAC was tilted to English Canada.

“I have made a very big effort as a francophile and as someone raised in Quebec to speak French with all my francophone colleagues. And I should have stock in VIA Rail because I’m in Montreal two or three times a month where it’s all in French.

What he has found is that the visibility of the office of the president and CEO of the NAC has been missing in French Canada.

So he has been to “God knows how many” dinners, receptions and public events to meet artists, producers and the francophone  cultural elite to give them a sense that the NAC’s CEO is now part of the conversation.

“I’m trying to change the corporate identity of the NAC.”

It has been a good start, he believes.

“Gestures on a symbolic level can have an unexpectedly strong impact. On the day of my appointment I went to a Radio-Canada studio on Sparks Street and did an interview in French. After the interview ended, the executive producer hugged me and said it was amazing that I spoke in French in the interview. They hadn’t heard that out of the NAC for a long time.”

Basically you have to back to Yves Desrochers, who left the NAC some 25 years ago, he said.

This does distinguish him from his predecessor, Peter Herrndorf.

“My predecessor was a guy who had a whole history in publishing and TV and all of that. He lived in Toronto” where he was in contact with all the major cultural institutions.

Deacon doesn’t have those connections. He has to make them and that is why he’s been on the road a lot in his first six months on the job.

“How do we address this issue of being nationally relevant?

“Step one is trying to be very present Montreal and Toronto. Those are important cultural hubs.” But that’s not all.

“I’ve been out to Banff, Calgary, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Stratford and I have plans to travel further into Quebec then go to the east coast and the west coast.

The other major group the NAC is engaging with is the Indigenous community in Ottawa and beyond.

The centre has created an advisory council that is helping management and staff understand the proper protocols and improve the cultural competency of staff.

For example some employees, including Deacon, have taken an Indigenous culture walk and they discovered that there is a “ton of stuff” in the area of the NAC that has to do with the presence of the Anishnaabe people.

He is also hoping to move beyond what now seems like a pat acknowledgement of unceded Anishnaabe territory that often is made before major events in the NAC.

“We are talking about moving past just reading a stock acknowledgement that has become kind of clichéd and that people tune out.

“We will be trying to talk about the Indigenous presence that moves into something more caring and serious. It may take more time but if you a more meaningful message into a presentation hopefully it will feel like something more than ticking a box.”

The discussion about including Indigenous people is part of developing a wider understanding of how to encourage diverse communities to come to the NAC.

Deacon says he once believed that if diverse artists were on the stage, a diverse audience would show up.

But he now says it takes more than that.

Deacon hopes the new public spaces in the $110 million addition to the centre, can be used to invite in all colours, creeds and genders.

“This isn’t Hamilton Southam’s NAC. You didn’t make K-pop rock videos in this building 50 years ago.”

To nail down a better understanding of the visitors coming to the NAC, Deacon has been consulting.

“In Montreal I met with Nathalie Bondil at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts  I wanted her advice on how to engage with the cultural and artistic life of Montreal.”

He also wanted advice on how to improve the visitor experience. Museums spend a lot of time on that, Deacon knows and is something he is bringing back to his colleagues at the NAC.

“A customer is someone who comes in with a credit card and purchases something. We love them. But we want expand the level of engagement (to include) people like university students who may spend the day in the lobby drinking coffee and using the free wifi.

Basically, he said, “everyone who comes into the NAC should feel welcome. It’s warm in winter and cool in summer. There are lots of seats, lots of places to plug in. There is free programming, or you can hang out and read a book.

“To succeed with patrons it has to be an enjoyable experience.”

That may take the form of visitor experience associates who may be arts graduates who have some sort of artistic career.

“They’d engage with you. They would be excited about the work and they won’t have a corporate opinion. The contemporary experience of the arts today is user defined. It’s not top down.”

Deacon has spent most of his career at the NAC, but this job is unlike any other he has held.

“I say to people I’m working in the same building with the same people who are doing the same stuff and yet, somehow, I am living a completely different life.

“Now I need to be on a very friendly basis with the person who runs Telefilm and the head of the National Film Board. My world before was NACO and making the orchestra work. I don’t do programming and producing anymore.”

Some pieces of the 50th anniversary party are known: The National Ballet performance in January is key.

“They were here on opening night. We are taking the occasion to make a fuss about that longstanding relationship. The orchestra will tour in May. And on June 2, the formal anniversary day, the NAC will throw open the doors for a big celebration.”

This summer there will be some programming. The smash Broadway musical Come From Away is in Southam Hall in August and a production of Two Pianos, Four Hands runs in July.

He said the centre wants to do a lot more, but there is still some work to do in the venues next summer. The stage floor in Southam Hall will be replaced and an electrical sub-station needs to be replaced.

But down the line summer programming will expand.

“If you are going to be in the capital in the summer you’ve really have to have a robust offering for visitors. This has been very spotty over the past 25 years.”

As for opera, Deacon is listening to pleas from coast to coast, but don’t expect anything in the near future.

“Our docket is full. We have announced a whole bunch of priorities that are coming on stream in the next year or so. We are running as fast as we can to fund those, to produce those and to plan those. Our dance card is full.

As well, “our most recent experience with (Opera Lyra) was not a happy one. We were left with a big financial tab. It left a bad taste.”

Nor is there a clear path to success with opera productions.

“Opera takes more rehearsal time. Productions are more elaborate and expensive. My ears are open but certainly nothing in the short term.”

Generally, though, Deacon is optimistic about the future of the performing arts.

“People are moved by it. They are captivated by it. I see a bright future for it. At the 100th anniversary this place will be packed with all kinds of stuff that we can’t imagine today.”

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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.