Peter Herrndorf to step down as the NAC’s CEO next June

Peter Herrndorf. Photo: David Kawai

Peter Herrndorf will step down as the head of the National Arts Centre on June 2, 2018, after leading the almost 50 year old institution for almost two decades.

Herrndorf, who is 76, has led the NAC though some of its most difficult times and into the opening of a recently renewed building and the creation of a new department of indigenous theatre and the establishment of a new $25 million fund that will encourage and support new creation in Canada.

Herrndorf, who was the publisher of Toronto Life magazine, led CBC’s news and current affairs department and was the CEO of  TV Ontario, took the reins at the NAC in 1999.

For many years he has taken one-year contracts. He has suffered from health concerns but no reason has been given for his decision at this time.

Perhaps his crowning achievement was the renovation project that has transformed the NAC physically inside and outside. It is an illustration of Herrndorf’s deft touch that both a Conservative government and a Liberal regime contributed in total $220 million to rent the centre.

But more long lasting might be the transformation of the centre as a national and local institution.

Under his tenure the NAC Orchestra has also been rejuvenated into a recognized world class ensemble with tours across the world and the country led by Pinchas Zukerman and now Alexander Shelley.

And the newly opened glass addition has been transformed into a community centre for the people of Ottawa and Canada to enjoy. The centre now is actively encouraging citizens to feel comfortable their public “living room,” as he has called it in interviews.

“The trick is we have to be effective at both,” he said in a recent interview. This is a fundamentally different relationship with the public in Ottawa and over time with the public across the country. They have to feel that this is their place and that they are proud of it. They have an investment in it.

“My hope is that in all of those places where we have planted seeds you get to see real growth.”

The renovations will be finished in 2019 in time for the 50th anniversary of the opening of the NAC in 1969.

In the same interview, Herrndorf said he was nervous about taking the job when it was offered in 1999.

The NAC was a “troubled” institution then.

“It WAS a troubled institution. I was nervous because it was troubled. Part of my motivation, though, for taking the job had to do with the fact that it was a really interesting and important challenge for an organization that mattered to the country.

“It was that notion that it was important that it continued to matter to the country for decades.

“I came to Canada as an immigrant and the way I discovered and learned about my adopted country was first through music and then through books and theatre and dance. It was the way this wonderful new country was revealed to me. I’ve had this kind of love affair with this ever since.”

In a media release the chair of the NAC’s board of trustees hailed Herrndorf’s leadership.

“Peter Herrndorf is quite simply the most successful, influential, and beloved leader in the performing arts in Canada. Throughout his career, he has brought groundbreaking ideas to life. He has helped countless artists and arts organizations fulfill their creative aspirations. More than anyone else, he has helped the performing arts thrive across the country,” said Adrian Burns. 

One of the first things Herrndorf did as CEO was to establish the NAC Foundation which has raised more than $140 million for arts and music education in Canada. The annual gala, held Saturday night in Southam Hall, raised $740,000 to add to the growing fund.

Under his leadership the NAC created Scene festivals that featured Canadian artists from the regions and offered them a showcase in the capital. This year the NAC is reaching into the regions with three tours in part son the country: English Theatre’s Tartuffe is playing in Newfoundland and Labrador, the orchestra will be in Western Canada and the North this fall and French Theatre’s Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show will be Montreal, Winnipeg and Saskatoon, along with shows in Ottawa. This latter show will be performed in English, French, Cree, Mitchif and Lakota.

An early example of Herrndorf’s creative vision was the creation of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards which he co-founded in 1992 and which celebrated a glittering 25th anniversary this past June.

Artists who have worked for Herrndorf at the NAC include French Theatre Artistic Directors Denis Marleau, Wajdi Mouawad, Brigitte Haentjens; English Theatre Artistic Directors Marti Maraden, Peter Hinton and Jillian Keiley; Music Directors Zukerman and Shelley; Dance Producers Michel Dozois and Cathy Levy; NAC Presents Producers Simone Deneau and Heather Gibson; Scene Producers Kari Cullen and Heather Moore; and Governor General’s Performing Arts Producers Brian Robertson, Kari Cullen and Virginia Thompson.

As the CBC, Herrndorf is credited with developing the fifth estate and The Journal. As publisher Toronto Life twice was named Canada’s Magazine of the Year.

Herrndorf studied political science and English at the University of Manitoba; studied law  at Dalhousie University and gained an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

He was named a Companion of the Order of Canada, on July 1.

Herrndorf is married to Eva Czigler, a former broadcast executive at CBC-SRC, and together they have two grown children, Katherine and Matthew.

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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.