Rosemary Thompson to leave NAC to take up senior post with Banff Centre

Rosemary Thompson

After eight years as the director of communications at the National Arts Centre, Rosemary Thompson is moving to Alberta to take up residence at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

She will start her new job as the vice president, marketing, communications and board relations on Jan. 2.

For Thompson, the move fulfills an old dream that she and her husband Pierre Boulet seriously considered more than 20 years ago.

Boulet, who was a journalist then, had travelled on assignment through the Rocky Mountains and was captivated by the Banff area and by the thought of starting, of all things, a laundry service which was much needed in the area then, Thompson said in an interview about her move to her new post.

“We’d probably be rich now if we had done that,” she said, but the couple, then in their 20s, decided to pursue careers in journalism.

It was a good choice. In Thompson’s case she went on to a successful career in television news notably as the first female correspondent in the Washington bureau of CTV during the 9/11 terror attack. She was the deputy bureau chief of the network’s Parliamentary Bureau and the Montréal bureau chief during the 1995 referendum on Québec Sovereignty. She also spent time as a reporter with the CBC in Winnipeg and Montréal.

She joined the National Arts Centre in 2009 as part of an executive team created by CEO Peter Herrndorf who has also announced his intention to leave the centre next June.

The NAC has seen a remarkable period of growth and renewal over the past eight years with major developments on a number of fronts including the creation of a new Indigenous theatre department, major tours of the NAC Orchestra to China, the U.K. and across Canada and a $225.4 million rejuvenation of the building which will turn 50 in 2019.

In addition to leading the communications effort around all of these endeavours, Thompson was the executive producer of the opening ceremony and celebration for the renewed NAC on Canada Day.

Leaving the NAC job was not an easy decision. She says the Banff Centre had approached her about the position in mid-June but she wasn’t in a position to consider the idea at the time as she was getting ready to host royalty at the opening ceremony for the centre’s expansion project on July 1.

But the idea took hold during a family trip across Canada to visit her parents in B.C. this past summer. On the way home, the family car broke down in Golden, B.C. and “it was so beautiful” that the possibility of joining the Banff team became very attractive.

Eventually she made the decision to move. She didn’t have to convince Pierre, who will be working at the centre too, helping develop contacts and co-operation with the francophone community. It also helps that the family of four is passionate about downhill skiing.

“We both feel that now in our 50s we are lucky to be able to go back there.”

Thompson is now charged with helping the Banff Centre raise its profile as a national and international leader in arts and leadership training, a job that is in many ways similar to the post she assumed at the NAC eight years ago.  

It is also at a point in the NAC’s evolution when many of the projects undertaken under Herrndorf’s direction are completed or well under way.

“The whole team has been working on his vision for 18 years. I’ve only been there for eight years but they have been incredible. On Canada Day, I felt that we had put a big red ribbon around the NAC and we were giving it back to artists and the audience.

“An arts institution never stops evolving but in terms of this chapter” it feels, for Thompson, like a natural endpoint. The NAC will choose a new CEO in the coming months and Thompson realized she would be starting fresh in Ottawa if she stayed or in Banff if she moved.

“And Banff was calling.”

Thompson says that artists at the NAC and elsewhere always speak fondly about the Banff Centre. “It’s a place where people perfect their art.” She says Banff, which opened its doors in 1933, is Canada’s leading post graduate arts training institute.

The head of the centre is Janice Price who was the founding head of the Luminato festival in Toronto and has worked at the Lincoln Centre in New York and has run the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Thompson calls Price one of the leading female arts executives in Canada.

Thompson believes that whoever fills Herrndorf’s shoes after he leaves next summer is inheriting “such a strong place, it’s a gift.”

What does she believe the next step is for the NAC?

“There are some things that still need to happen. The Indigenous theatre is still to open in 2019-2020. That’s big. The creation fund has started but the projects that will be funded will have to be chosen and 2019 is our 50th anniversary. Then I think the one thing the centre will need to focus on is the digital piece.

“What are we going to do? When you look at what is happening internationally right now, there are some arts centres that are leading on digital. Some of it on the dissemination side.

“For example, Stratford is doing one play a year for live stream broadcast. CBC is picking that up. In Berlin the orchestra is streaming, I think the NAC has to find our place in all that.”

Even though Thompson is a fan of live performance, she also believes that all large arts institutions have the ability to become self broadcasters but the content that is created will have to be compelling enough to draw the eyeballs of Canadians and the world.

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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.