NAC at 50: The second edition

The rejuvenated National Arts Centre building designed by Toronto architects, Diamond Schmitt.

Sarah Jennings wasn’t at all sure that she wanted to tackle a second edition of Art and Politics, her intensive history of the National Arts Centre.

“The first edition took five years of my life when we originally thought it would take a year or two,” said the veteran arts journalist. But despite the effort and a tight timeline, “in the end, it was a fantastic task and I was very glad to have it.”

So should be fans of the NAC and of the performing arts in Canada. The second edition has recently been published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. It covers the last 10 years at the centre from 2009 to the appointment of Christoper Deacon as the new CEO and President of the NAC in the spring of 2019.

In the publishing industry a second edition consist of 20 per cent new material, which indeed this is.

It looks at perhaps the most significant period in the centre’s history since the founding and the early years under the visionary first CEO Hamilton Southam.

Jennings felt the task would not be easy in no small part due to the fact that “most of my voices are still in their jobs working through the policies, plans and projects launched by Peter Herrndorf.”

Just before Christmas, 2017 she made up hr mind to do the job.  She signed a contract with an initial publisher,  Dundurn. The target was to finished interviews and hand in a manuscript by Nov. 1, 2018. By July that year she knew she couldn’t make the deadline. The story was complex with many moving pieces and she had limited space. As well Dundurn itself was in some difficulty. Jennings ended up moving the manuscript to McGill-Queen’s with the help of her editor Rosemary Shipton and the historian Margaret McMillan.

Manoeuvres aside, Jennings says her work was done without any editorial interference by the NAC.

“I was fortunate that I had a free hand.”

These 10 years are really all about Peter Herrndorf. It is, in many ways, a study in how to run an arts institution.

Included in the photographs for these years is an image of notes that Herrndorf made in advance of his interview with her. They reflect his thoroughness and his understanding of his task.

“He would sit in his office and plot out exactly what he wanted to occur,” she said.

“When Donald Schmitt came to discuss the addition to the existing building (that opened June 2, 2018), Schimtt sat in the outer office for about 40 minutes while Peter sat in his office making notes about what he wanted to say to Schmitt. He’s very methodical and he looks ahead. He can see far ahead down the road.”

That’s one of his great skills as a manager, she said.

“He scanned the horizon the whole time, looking for opportunities for the NAC on all fronts. Then he would activate his team to follow up.”

Sarah Jennings holds a copy of her book Art and Politics. The second edition is now available. It’s published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

The book is called Art and Politics and part of its great utility is its insight into the workings of cultural institutions and the political masters they navigate.

This was one area where Herrndorf did shine, Jennings believes. He was able to make friends and influence people on all sides of the aisle.

John Baird, the former cabinet minister, was a key point person. In interviews he told Jennings that Herrndorf had befriended Baird in Toronto when Baird was at Queen’s Park. When Baird was first elected as an opposition MP, Herrndorf contacted him immediately.

When the Stephen Harper government came to power less that a year later, Baird, who was a key player in the Harper cabinet, remembered that contact. He told Jennings Herrndorf was very smart to stay in touch. The result was a $110 million addition to the NAC. Then, when the Trudeau Liberal government took over, they kicked in another $114 million to renew the guts of the centre’s performing spaces.

“I often think that (Herrndorf’s) real passion is politics and the political game. He loves the arts, no doubt about it. He would never have been a politician himself, he was a journalist. But I think he loves being in the swim of it all.”

Her first edition concludes with the first 10 years of Herrndorf’s term when he was basically lifting NAC off its knees and giving it forward momentum again. He also built on the ideas of his predecessor, John Cripton, she said, whom Herrndorf is not afraid to acknowledge.

“The second edition is (when) he begins to put into place the pieces he wants for the future of the organization.”

These years form three chapters that first of all “crams everything that has gone on in the arts in last decade. The second chapter focuses on the architectural renewal and it is a detailed anatomy of the project.

“The third chapter involves this great leap of faith into the future which is the Indigenous Theatre department. All of this comes from Herrndorf’s prescient view of what’s coming down the road and how can the NAC play a part in that.”

Lest one think there has been an unbroken string of success, the failure to get an increase in the base budget of the NAC to accommodate the new Indigenous theatre is disappointing, Jennings said.

“I think it is a great pity the government didn’t provide the base budget increase in first go round (last April).

“I believe it will come eventually.” But as she explained arm’s length cultural institutions can’t get project funding for individual performances or an orchestra tour or a gala event from government.

She did get an insight into why the funding increase was denied from a senior bureaucrat who explained that increasing the NAC’s operating budget would raise demands from all government departments for a similar bump in funding. With an election on the horizon in October, that was a bridge too far.

Still the NAC has not seen an increase in its operating budget for years and is technically less well off because of inflation.

This makes the role of the NAC Foundation more and more important.

That’s a bit of a double-edged sword because its success might convince government that the funding isn’t needed and it also means, Jennings said, “you are in the selling business.”

She is a firm believer in the important place of public dollars in the cultural sector, in institutions such as the NAC, the National Gallery of Canada and the Canada Council.

These critical discussions don’t get a lot of attention in 2019. That makes the history Jennings has written more important.

“They’ve been so under-reported in the past few years. People are losing the sense of how important they are. People should be made aware. In this period, there is a flowering of great work being done at a high level that actually introduces the country to itself and the world. Those old arguments about why this matters are more important now than ever.”

The Indigenous Theatre is part of that. It offers a unique artistic vision, she believes, and a powerful political voice as evidenced when artistic director Kevin Loring took aim at the decision of the Trudeau government to not increase NAC funding.

Interestingly when the cultural appropriation controversy erupted over Robert Lepage’s Kanata, two artistic directors at the NAC expressed their contrary points of view in the media. French Theatre’s Brigitte Haentjens backed Lepage. Indigenous theatre’s Loring took issue.

That speaks to the openness inside the centre, Jennings believes.

“I think it’s wonderfully healthy that these individuals have complete artistic freedom and can have fundamental disagreements without management interfering and laying down the party line. That’s a very healthy thing. This was there at the outset under Hamilton Southam and has been maintained.”

Now that she has written 50 years of the history of the NA, Jennings might just know more than anyone about the place. She said she believes her book is about more than just the institution.

“It is really the story of the fortunes of the arts in Canada as told through the prism of the institution’s history. It’s good times, bad times, money provided and money withdrawn.

“It went through such terrible times.” She said she believes even Yvon DesRochers’ story is “a tragic story not an evil story. He had no money; they gave him no money.” He did rub people the wrong and it did end badly.

DesRochers’ time at the NAC is an example of a time when government abandoned the performing arts.

The commitment of the public through funding is tricky for governments.

“Artistic ideas are dangerous. Governments have more and more wanted to control them. To the degree, that Southam and Herrndorf managed to protect the artistic life of the NAC” they deserve praise.

In Herrndorf’s case, he knew he wouldn’t get more money for operations, she said, so he was determined to get resources from other places. He succeeded in doing that, she said, through the NAC Foundation and with the National Creation Fund.

For Jennings, though the “greatest donors to these organizations are Canadian taxpayers. I’d hate to see that idea eroded.” Nor does she agree with selling naming rights inside great institutions.

The idea of the new NAC as the country’s cultural living room is welcomed “”if the sense is that this was a forbidding building that people were afraid to enter. To welcome the public into the building is a marvellous step forward.

“My own view is that this is a national performing arts centre and the main purpose for people to come into the building is to discover more about the arts and the excitement and thrill of it. As long as all these developments actually draw people into that magic circle of the arts then I am for it.”

The jury is out on that but she says she’s “sure it will work out. They have done the best they can to get that young lady lying on the staircase reading her book with her earphones on to buy a ticket to a show. This is a great feast there for us to enjoy.”

The future looks bright now for the NAC, Jennings said. There is a refreshed artistic team, new works are being created and commissioned.

“There aren’t enough nights in the year to see everything I want to see there.”

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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.