Performing Arts: NAC’s Herrndorf recalls the founding to the governor general’s awards 25 years ago

Peter Herrndorf. Photo: David Kawai

In the late spring of 1993, two giants of Canadian culture met for the very first time. This despite the fact the two men lived not six minutes apart in Montreal. It was at the second ever gathering to celebrate the then very new Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards.

And for Peter Herrndorf, one of those who sparked the creation of these acknowledgements of national cultural treasures, the meeting of Leonard Cohen, who died this past year, and Gilles Vigneault, the great chansonnier of Quebec nationalism, was just the sort of breaking through of national solitudes that he had hoped for when these awards were just a dream shared with a friend over a drink.

But first some more history.

“In the 1980s when I was at Toronto Life I really felt strongly that Toronto artists were not being sufficiently acknowledged and celebrated.” To do just that, the Toronto Arts Awards were created, with some very active urging from Herrndorf, who is now the National Arts Centre’s CEO.

“They turned out to be a real event with a sense of occasion. It was done in a theatre. It was dressed up. There was a wonderful element to it that included each recipient being able to select a piece of art from an emerging artist. That was one of the things that set it apart from almost anything else,” he said in an interview with Artsfile.

The event became very popular, he said. But within a few years, it became time for a bigger stage.

“I was the first chairman of The Toronto Arts Awards. When I stepped down I persuaded this guy named Brian Robertson, who I knew a little bit, to take my place.

That was 30-plus years ago. Little did I know that he and I would become very close friends and we are to this day.

In the late 1980s, the two were having a drink and we began to kick around the idea of taking the awards national.

“He ran with it, and dragged me along with it. We persuaded Ray Hnatyshyn (the then governor general) that this was very important to do.”

Hnatyshyn agreed.

Herrndorf and Robertson had three goals.

* To celebrate the performing arts in this country and make Canadians aware of that success.
* To honour the individual artists who had given such enjoyment and pride.
* Most significant, he said, was to introduce the best artists from French and English Canada to each other.
A unique institutional partnership was formed made up of the Canada Council, the NAC, the CBC, the Canadian Conference of the Arts and the Governor General office.

In 1992 , the very first group of five laureates along with three other prize winners were named. A first gala was held in Southam Hall. Among the honoured that night were Oscar Peterson, William Hutt, the actor, and Norman Jewison, the film director.
Over the years dozens more names have been added to the list of laureates. Each year the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award is given to someone for volunteerism in the arts. And the National Arts Centre Award is given for excellence in the performing arts in a single year. Another award is given to a young emerging artist who is selected by a mentor.

Each year the laureates and winners are invited to Ottawa, where they are honoured in the House of Commons, entertained at Rideau Hall and then honoured again in the annual gala by their friends and peers.

“Of course the thing that never occurred to me at the time was that I would, starting a few years later, so much of my life at the NAC,” Herrndorf said.

A short film is made to mark the career of each artist. For several years these films have been prepared by the National Film Board. They have emerged as works of art in their own right.
This year is the 25th ceremony. Anniversaries such as a 25th or a 150th are ties to reflect.

For Herrndorf, who is an eternally optimistic ambassador for Canadian culture, 
”Canada has the most remarkable individual performing artists. There’s an abundance. … The Americans wonder how is it that you can produce this incredible flow of artists in a relatively small country.
“At the moment we are punching above our weight to such a degree in areas like music and comedy and fiction. This is a country that has so many cultural role models for young people to say ‘I want to do what he did. I want to do what she did’.
“I’m probably right now more optimistic than I have ever been about the talent in the arts in this country.”
He always, he says, makes the case that the most internationally competitive sector in Canada is the arts.

Herrndorf has been at the helm of the NAC since 1999, stick handling it out of a low point in the late 1990s into a massive $220 million renovation and the creation of a new department of Indigenous theatre and a $25 million fund for new work.

As is his way, he will not talk about how long he will stay in his post, committing only to finishing 2017. Although the temptation to see the NAC turn 50 in 2019 must be hard to resist.

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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.