The NAC at 50 is in a sweet spot, says CEO Christopher Deacon

Christopher Deacon is the president and CEO of the NAC. Photo: Peter Robb

Christopher Deacon used to attend concerts at the National Arts Centre with his father who was a music critic for the Ottawa Journal some five decades ago.

These days, after a career at the centre that effectively started in the bowels of the building, Deacon is the president and CEO of NAC as it turns 50 years old on Sunday.

In his opinion, and yes he is biased, “I would say the NAC at 50 is a success story. As you look back over the decades, it has had remarkable achievements by putting the best of Canada on stage.”

For Deacon, this anniversary is a chance to reflect on the past and speak to the future.

“In my mind,” he said, “it starts in 1969 with the founders.

“The NAC was a wonderful dream come true in 1969. Remember Ottawa was a very quiet place then. There was (the Capitol) theatre where the Montreal Symphony would come to play the odd time. But, generally it was a pretty empty place for the performing arts,” certainly compared to what is happening in 2019.

In 1969, the country was on the verge of an explosion of culture. The theatre scene was just about to mushroom across the country and major works were being created and presented by the Royal Winnipeg and National Ballet companies. The Stratford Festival was producing world class work. But there wasn’t a national stage for these works to appear on.

“The creation of the NAC and its opening was a leap forward for the city and the country,” he said.

Flash forward to 50th, Deacon said, in an interview with ARTSFILE before the centre celebrates its official birthday on June 2, “the vision of the founders remains intact. It has always been about putting the best of Canadian performing arts on a national stage.”

But the NAC has evolved, he believes, in some important ways.

“I like to think the institution is responding to changes in society. For example, we have seen over the past eight to 10 years, an explosion in the presentation of singer-songwriters at NAC through the NAC Presents program.

“In a sense that mirrors the rapid expansion and development of terrific singer-songwriters across the country. Today this is a major cultural export for Canada so it is fitting that there is a home for them here.”

The centre now has a strategic focus on commissioning of new work in dance, theatre and music and supporting the development of world class works through the $25-million national Creation Fund that has invested in some 27 productions including The Hockey Sweater The Musical and Kidd Pivot’s Revisor.

And of course the creation of a new department of Indigenous theatre at the NAC represents a major development.

“I think the centre is responding to the growth and evolution of the country. Indigenous peoples and cultures have been here for thousands of years but what’s different now — with the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) — is a national awareness that we have to put (these concerns) at the top of the national agenda.

“(In the TRC) there was a call to respond and one of those was what are the cultural institutions going to do to respond.”

At that time the NAC was going through a process that would eventually lead to Indigenous theatre.

There was, Deacon said, a recognition that “we needed to have indigenous stories being written, directed and acted by Indigenous artists. That gelled around the time of the TRC.”

Another critical development in the evolution of the centre was the recent renovation and renewal of the NAC in the past few years.

“I was always very fond of original architecture,” Deacon said, but “as an administrator, it did not work well for us. Having a front door that people couldn’t find was really counter-productive when you are trying to invite people to enjoy the performing arts.

“Finally, while respecting the original Brutalist architecture, we are now embracing the public in a more proactive way.”

There is little doubt to that the opening of the NAC in 1969 was a jump-start for the evolution of local performing arts.

An example is the relationship between the centre and the uOttawa school of music that emerged.

“It is a matter of record that the NAC Board of Trustees and the University of Ottawa Board of Trustees passed motions at same time that essentially said that the NAC would create an orchestra and it would collaborate with the university’s music school. The university board said it would create a school of music which would work with the NAC Orchestra,” Deacon, who was the general manger of the orchestra before assuming his current post.

“I think we can say with confidence that the synergy of the NAC Orchestra and the school of music has been a powerful one in the community. I’d like to think also that the relationship with theatre community in Ottawa has also been positive.”

The new centre also started to attract artisans and craftspeople who have remained to work in the community and Deacon believes that will continue to grow along with the NAC’s greater commitment to new work.

And as hobbyists, crafts people and other “user-generated content” fills the public spaces of the new addition, this will have more and more people engaging with art inside the NAC. On the day of this interview, for example, the lobby was filled by seniors taking a painting class.

“People want to engage with art and we want to be part of that too. The public spaces give us that edge,” he said.

Of course it’s not all rosy.

The federal budget did not include a bump in funding that would help sustain Indigenous theatre. This prompted an outburst from the new theatre’s artistic director Kevin Loring.

But Deacon isn’t fazed.

“The starting point for this is that the NAC is generously funded by the government of Canada on an ongoing, predictable and reliable way. I don’t want to lay too much emphasis on this. Generally arts organizations across the country view the NAC as being in a privileged position.”

He also noted that “the diversification of revenue streams that Peter Herrndorf brought on board” have helped keep the NAC is a positive financial state. For example the NAC Foundation, created by Herrndorf, raised some $14 million this past year. Much of the money to the foundation is given by individual donors.

The centre also receives revenues from events such as corporate meetings and  weddings in the new public spaces. Parking and revenues from the food an beverage department of the NAC also contribute to an annual operating budget that hovers around $80 million a year. The federal piece is about $35 million and hasnot mived since about 2004.

“We have a strong position financially and that gives us options to finance Indigenous Theatre.

‘We are committed to it. In my view it is right and the only thing to do. Canada is evolving and so is the NAC. If you want to represent the cultures of the country on this national stage there has to be Indigenous expression here.”

This week the NAC board has been meeting to consider a new five year plan that will govern the direction of the centre to 2025, he said. That plan “will no doubt include sustainable financing, further fundraising and further partnerships.”

One of those future streams of revenue will be the summer.

“One of the aspirations of the institution is to have lively engagement here in the summer, just as you find in other seasons of the year.”

Again reflecting on where Canadian culture has come over the past five decades, Deacon says, “I would say that the standard of artistic excellence in Canada now is really quite remarkable. The country’s artists have upped their game over the past 50 years and we are the beneficiary of that.

“The arts will always depend on the brilliance of the creators and I have every confidence that this will only get better.

“Communities always need stories. They inspire and restore and that’s the business we are in. We are about the magic that happens when the house lights go down and the story begins.”

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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.