Ottawa Arts Council’s Peter Honeywell takes a bow

Peter Honeywell has led the Ottawa Arts Council for the past two decades.

In the 1970s, Ottawa was not a cultural hotbed. There were artists here working hard to try to make a career but many left the city to find their way in Toronto, Montreal and New York.

That there is today a flourishing community with artists who choose to stay and build their lives here is a testament to the hard work of a lot of people.

One of those builders is Peter Honeywell, who is stepping aside from his role as the executive director of the Ottawa Arts Council, a post he has held since 1990.

In 1973, after being inspired by a trip to Mexico where he met and saw textile artists at work, Honeywell had founded Northeast Studios in the northeast corner of the Byward Market Building.

“I had gone to Mexico and visited with a lot of weavers there. We came back and with a friend, who became my business partner, we decided ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we started working with textiles and doing something’.

So he did something.

“I ended up taking a spot in the Byward Market building as soon as it opened. It was with a group of artists. The only way you could do it was as a craft co-operative. It was called Northeast Studios. It was in the northeast corner of the building, right where the bagel shop is now.

“Some of artists who worked with us were people like Jim Thompson and Paula Murray. It was a nice group.” Honeywell became a successful artist. His work is collected including by the Museum of History.

But after about 10 years in the studio, Honeywell was approached by a board member of the Ottawa Arts Council.

“I was working in the studio and the chair of the council came to me and said ‘We have an opening on the board and we are looking for someone who understands design and craft. We’d like to have that representation’.

“I had done some work with others starting not-for-profits, so I knew what it entailed.”

He joined the council board in 1986.

“In those days, it was pretty formal. We met at the NAC boardroom four times a year. Susan Annis was the chair at the time.”

It was an important time for the arts in Ottawa. In 1987, the idea of a downtown arts hub was a matter of serious discussion.

Honeywell remembers the Ottawa Arts Council pushing for the old teachers college on Elgin. But that space was taken by the regional government.

Those were desperate times for a cultural community that really needed a home.

For example, “you had Le Groupe de la Place Royale in the Hardy Arcade on Sparks Street,” Honeywell said, adding: “That’s where Madonna used to hang out.”


“Her brother was a member of the company. She would come up to visit him, sit in the window and watch the dancers. She was watching Peter Boneham and all these really interesting choreographers. That’s where she picked up a lot of the choreography she has used over the years.”

That aside, in the 1980s, Honeywell said, “you had to be on the advocacy thing non-stop. If you took your eyes off it you were screwed. We were constantly watching city budgets, wondering where we were going.”

After the teachers college was put out of reach, attention turned to the old courthouse on Daly Avenue.

Honeywell believes that the Ottawa Arts Council got the building because of guilt.

“I think guilt was so important that they gave us the old courthouse. (Former Ottawa mayor) Jim Durrell signed off on that.

“But, of course, literally there were bloody vests in the evidence room and law books stacked up. We walked in and it was like they had just abandoned the place.

“Then the trucks arrived from Toronto and they took all the capital assets in the building away.”

The building, as it was, started to be populated by organizations such as the SAW Gallery, the Ottawa Art Gallery, Le Groupe, SAW Video and more. And Arts Court was born.

Honeywell thought he’d sit on the board for a couple of years and then move on. But then he was asked to be the board member responsible for the Festival of the Arts, which was a major and massive celebration of creation in the capital.

Once more he said, “Sure.”

He was working with Peter Harris, who was then the executive producer for festival.

“One day he came to the board and said ‘I’m running for city council’ and he stepped down three months before the festival was to begin.

At that meeting, “he pointed to me and said ‘He knows what’s going on.'”

Honeywell was the new executive producer. Talk about a battlefield commission.

“I sat in my office and cried because I didn’t know how to do any of it. I was looking at computers that had been given to us by Corel and I didn’t know how they worked. And because you are the boss you can’t ask anybody.”

He had 10 staff. It was a bizarre situation.

“It was mad, but we pulled it off.” That festival ran for 17 days with some 65 different events.

He ran the festival for two years but by the end of that period, the festival and the council was over-extended. By 1990, the council was looking at bankruptcy with a $240,000 debt. And Honeywell was the last man standing as the new executive director.

“We were able to get beyond that by going volunteer for a year. There was no staff and we had to rebuild every relationship. Those days were tough. You basically did it for the love of doing it. I was really lucky. People kicked in some money to tide him over.”

The board chair, Pierre Arpin, was a true hero then. He went to creditors and started negotiating better arrangements, Honeywell said.

“He would phone me and say ‘Guess what? I got $20,000 off that debt. I’m on a roll’.”

The city and the Ontario Arts Council stepped up too and the council survived, but something had to change. The Ottawa Arts Council needed to figure out how to make a difference, Honeywell said.

Those were the times when the festivals the city now knows so well were getting going. “We would actually be competing with them.”

Ultimately, the council decided it would take on a stronger advocacy role.

“The big push was to get the arts community some respect.”

Most arts groups hate doing advocacy work.

“So we decided we had to do it. It wasn’t natural to me at all either, but it had to be done and I had to learn how to do it.”

Over his time as executive director, Honeywell has worked with seven mayors, some more successfully than others.

One of the most surprising was Jim Durrell, who was perceived by many as sports oriented.

“But he did a lot in his time to get programs set up for arts groups. We set up an arts grants program while he was mayor. Before that money was handed out as a purchase of service through the city clerk.

“He also took a whole group of artists to The Hague on an exchange. He got Arts Court started.”

Other mayors were tougher. Jackie Holzman, for example, felt that the arts should do it themselves, he said.

Sometimes money flowed and then it was taken away.

For example, as the regional government was wrapping up their time just before amalgamation of Ottawa, Nepean and Gloucester, “they gave us what was called the $500,000. Everybody knew it as The $500,000. It was the biggest increase we had ever seen in arts funding at the the time.

“In marched Pierre Benoit and his team which had been put in place by the Mike Harris government and they squashed The $500,000.”

Honeywell and the arts community went to war.

“I was marching around asking ‘Do you know the damage you are doing? People have made plans based on these dollars.’ As soon the new government came in under Bob Chiarelli, The $500,000 was reinstated.”

He hit the bricks again in Chiarelli’s second term after the mayor froze taxes. The campaign was called My Ottawa Includes Culture.

“That was fascinating. It wasn’t me alone. It was gutsy to take over the plaza in front of city hall. Some kids from Lisgar High School showed up and started marching in a circle.

In all about 2,000 people showed up. Even councillors came out to urge the protesters to march into city hall. Eventually Chiarelli raised taxes and the commuity was funded.

It has been quite a journey for Honeywell and the council.

In the years before amalgamation the city had about $3 million in kitty for culture, he said.

“We are now sitting at $11 million. That’s a pretty good increase over the years.”

As well, “I think we don’t have to make the justification (for funding culture) any more. We just had a report done by Hill Strategies that shows the value of culture. Those studies are really valuable because they prove the argument.

“What we are discovering is that Ottawa is not that far off funding levels in cities like Calgary and Toronto.

“Ottawa has some of the highest participation rates in the country in the making of culture. People here like to engage in art. They like to be part of choir. They like to go to a studio and make things.

“I see the music community pulling itself together with the new music strategy.”

Film seems to be coming along as well, he said, with the prospect of a major soundstage in the planning stages.

And finally Arts Court is fulfilling its promise following a $40 million upgrade. The new Ottawa Art Gallery saw some 350,000 visits in its first year. There are new spaces for SAW Video and for the SAW Gallery which will open this summer.

So, Honeywell believes this is the perfect time to step aside.

“I’m 65. It’s time to move on and let some new energy come in. I’m happy this has worked out. I’m happy about the progress that I have seen over the past 20 years. It is significant.”

What’s left to do? He believes the building phase is over. In the past 15 years the city has seen a new GCTC at the corner of Holland and Wellington; La Nouvelle Scene has seen an upgrade, despite the withdrawal of provincial money for the next phase;  Arts Court has been renovated and the OAG given a new home; Centrepointe has been improved and the Shenkman Arts Centre has been built.

“We now need to start to stimulate art making. That will take resources. It needs a long-term approach. For example, Finland gives significant living wage to talented artists over a three-year period.

“We need to help build the careers of emerging and mid-career artists.”

He also would like to see an emphasis on providing “safe, affordable studio space. The city has role to play in working with developers to give a benefit if they work with the arts community to create spaces. That is kind of thing city can do.

“I’m hoping some churches and schools will evolve into arts hubs as they become available.”

Honeywell will continue to work, but now at his pace.

He will continue to sit on the board of the Ontario Nonprofit Network, which represents some 58,000 organizations with more than a million workers. The ONN has just launched a pension plan for those workers. And he says he’s available to consult.

The Ottawa Arts Council will now be led by Nicole Milne.

Honeywell believes the various arts councils in the community may now need to consider their own form of amalgamation.

“We have achieved (most of) what we wanted, now it’s about the best use of resources and how to serve the community in the future.

Over the years, the council has represented some 120 member organizations and 60 to 80 individual artists.

There has been a lot of change. Some organizations, such as Opera Lyra and Le Groupe, are no more, but they have been replaced by others.

“That’s the way it is going to be. That’s why, with this organization, we have to be open to change and doing something in a different way.”

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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.