The learning curve: Nicole Milne takes the lead at the Ottawa Arts Council

Nicole Milne is the new head of the Ottawa Arts Council.

When Nicole Milne was a child in Winnipeg she used to attend her father’s performances in musical theatre.

She remembers sitting in the wings watching the magic happen on stage and she was hooked. She started acting herself and soon was able to establish her own career as a professional child actor in musical theatre in the Manitoba capital.

She also learned an early lesson about visual art from her mother who ran a gallery in town. Nicole would take her earnings and her mother would invest that in a piece of art.

In her small eight foot by eight foot bedroom in the family home in the north-end of the city, Nicole had her own mini-gallery hanging on the wall.

It’s safe to say that a career in the arts was in the cards for Nicole Milne. But not in Winnipeg and not on the stage. She’s actually an experienced arts administrator and these days she is the fourth executive director in the history of the 37 year old Ottawa Arts Council.

ARTSFILE caught up with Milne recently for an interview about the agency she now leads.

Soon after she arrived in town in the late ’90s, Milne started working at the National Arts Centre on a contract in the marketing department working for another powerhouse woman, Heather Moore, who these days runs the NAC’s Creation Fund.

Soon after Milne moved to the centre’s communications department working with Jayne Watson, who today is the head of the massively successful NAC Foundation. Milne found herself writing speeches for Peter Herrndorf and getting a close up look at the inside of a major national arts institution.

It was an invaluable experience.

“It helped me understand how to lead organizations and staff and really make the best use of events and social situations to help build communities and partnerships,” she said.

The NAC was just emerging from a troubled period and she said she witnessed the centre admit that it wasn’t living up to the responsibilities the organization.

All of this prepared her for the work she is now doing at the Ottawa Arts Council. But before she arrived in the big chair in the OAC offices in Arts Court, Milne worked for the Canada Council on contract and then at the Great Canadian Theatre Company for five years. She is married to actor, voice coach and the artistic director and co-founder of The Acting Company, Chris Ralph.

Milne says she has a fierce and passionate love for the arts. Her youthful experience ingrained a love of visual art, music and dance. But she believes it also instilled a dedication and respect for the work artists do.

“I worked regularly because was I was the kid who respected the art form. I showed up. I was polite and reliable and I could deliver.

“I sang in musicals. I played almost every female Von Trapp. I have two Gretls, one Louisa and one Maria under my belt. My husband jokes that one day I’ll be the Mother Abbess as my swan song.

“I continued to do that outside of school right up until I decided to move to Ottawa.”

It was harder to get on a professional stage here, but she continued to work in the arts community as much as she could.

She started working with the Orpheus Musical Theatre Society and ended up doing several shows with them “while I tried to find work in the arts so I could still give back.”

Eventually that lead to arts administration.

All of this experience was eye-opening for Milne about the arts in Ottawa. How does the local community fit when there are large national institutions in the same space?

“How are we relevant is a big question for smaller professional organizations,” she said.

When the top job at the OAC opened up, Milne put her hat in the ring.

“I had been on the board for four years previously and had started to increase my participation.”

In her board role she “watched and learned. Peter Honeywell had incredible established relationships with the City of Ottawa. And he did have the admiration of the community here.

“The job intrigued me because, while I loved my work at GCTC, I felt it was time to move on to something that spoke a little more about building partnerships with other organizations and to help support artists and arts organizations here.

“I wanted a new responsibility. I wanted to learn from Peter and get a sense of how an organization like this could make a difference.”

She said she felt she brought a different set of skills to the job with her experience in marketing, communications and fundraising and her connections in the theatre, dance and visual arts communities.

“Peter had established himself as an incredible advocate for the arts and was a string voice for the community.”

She said she wants the Ottawa Arts Council to be an organization that is an effective advocate and that has the trust of the Ottawa arts community and its funders.

“I want it to be a meaningful place for the community and I think we have some way to go to get there. We really want artists and organizations to feel welcome and represented.”

She believes the OAC has needed to do more of this kind of community building.

“I’m part of that history having been on board. I also have wanted to make this happen for quite some time. We need to really really focus on inclusivity and accessibility for artists and partners and our board and our staff.

“I want to make sure this is an organization that represents the artists of this community in a way that they feel they are best represented.”

She has really only been on the job for a few weeks now. Much of that time has been spent meeting and listening to artists and others. She said she is asking “Is this organization relevant to you? Do see yourself supported by it and if you don’t what are the ways we can be doing that?”

The question of relevance permeates it all. She has found that the community knows the OAC supports the arts community, but there is a belief that its work isn’t always relevant.

For example, “we have been a unilingual place for quite some time. As a result our integration into the francophone community needs to be heightened. We also don’t do enough for the Indigenous community.

“I think people know we are here but I think people don’t all know what is possible and what kinds of things we can do to help.”

In the offices in the renovated Arts Court, people trickle in and ask questions about funding and work spaces. Milne said it’s not clear they are showing up simply because “we are in Arts Court or because they know we are a place that can help them.”

The OAC spends time on professional development “but are we listening to what they actually need or are we deciding internally that this would be good and we hope they come in the door?”

So, she says, the OAC needs to stop thinking inside out and start thinking outside in.

This means better communication of what the institution does and can do. And then it means delivering a meaningful experience to the membership of some 120 organizations and up to 80 individual artists.

The task at hand is to become “the kind of arts council that our community meaningfully engages with.” That is needed, she thinks, because the council has lost touch with some artists and some disciplines.

Part of that work is partnering with other key organizations such as Ottawa Tourism to position local artists and organizations in the mix of cultural opportunities in the capital.

“We can play a strong role in connecting organizations like that to our arts community in a way that can help the city as a whole.

“This is what we have been doing for 25 years — connecting people, doing our best to make sure people know we are a resource for artists so their voices can be heard. Partnerships will be key in that effort along with an awful lot of listening” to determine what issues are relevant to artists today.

It also means taking a look at what the OAC does and what works and what doesn’t.

She knows already about some of the pressing problems facing the arts community. One is the lack of affordable space in which to work and finding answers for that.

She also thinks the council can do more to support emerging artists in the community. The goal is to keep artists who are doing exciting and innovative work here.

“These are assumptions and I don’t want to approach this position with an assumption. I want to approach the job with the understanding of what artists need. That’s why I’m trying my best to meet with as many people as I can.”

Another cloud on the horizon is the cuts to funding being planned by the Ontario government.

“Arts organizations have always had that bogeyman in the closet. We have always had to manage more with less. It has already impacted us from a funding point of view. So, going forward, we’ll need to diversify our revenues to remain solvent and can continue to offer programs that we do.”

She hopes that the community will rally around the OAC if the meetings she is having are “effective and they start to make people feel this is an organization that will support them, they will help the organization too.”

She is also going through the process of meeting with City of Ottawa people to build on Peter Honeywell’s strong connection with city hall.

“I want the city to trust that the OAC will execute what they envision for the organization.”

She says that she hopes by the time of her first annual general meeting the people in the room are starting to really see the value of the organization.

“I hope people will feel welcome and come. That will be a gauge for me. It will tell me if I showed up enough and did enough.”

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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.