Building a lasting legacy and the future of arts leadership in Canada: In conversation with Peter Herrndorf, President and CEO of the National Arts Centre

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Peter Herrndorf is often called the “godfather of Canadian arts,” and given his remarkable career and groundbreaking accomplishments as President and CEO of the National Arts Centre (NAC) for nearly twenty years, it is easy to understand why. Peter is also a member of the MMIAM International Advisory Committee. He will be leaving the NAC at the end of May to pursue exciting new opportunities in Toronto. Laura Adlers had the pleasure of meeting with Peter recently to talk about Canada’s unique national cultural institution, what makes a good arts manager, and the future of arts leadership in Canada.

The National Arts Centre is a unique place in the arts world, both in Canada and internationally. What makes it so unique?

There is nothing like the National Arts Centre anywhere in the world. To start with, it is national, it is multidisciplinary (with a national orchestra, dance program and theatre programs) and it is bilingual. In the last two years, we added one other element, which is that we now run three theatre companies: English, French and Indigenous. Then we add the fact that we run educational programs right across the country, from British Columbia to Nunavut to Newfoundland. We are the only arts organization in the country that actively fundraises in every province in the country.  We are also a federal crown corporation that is highly entrepreneurial. The entrepreneurial side of the organization is critical, because it has allowed us to do a lot of our national and international projects.

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The Kipnes Lantern at the National Arts Centre. (Photo courtesy of the National Arts Centre.)

When we did our tour with the NAC Orchestra to China in 2013, we raised about $1.4 million privately, almost all of it from individuals. We were able to raise all of the funds privately for the UK tour commemorating the 100th anniversary of Canadians going to war in England in 1914. When we organized our Canada Scene festival for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, 1000 artists came here from all over the country and we raised that money from multiple sources. So, we are very entrepreneurial in a way that very few government organizations are, and all of these factors together make it a very unusual place.

With that of course comes a level of pluralism that is beyond any arts organization I have seen. This in turn poses fascinating and unique management challenges, which is part of the reason I love this job.

We also do a lot of touring. In 2017, as part of the Canada 150 celebrations, we had three tours going on at the same time. We were doing a national tour with the orchestra – first to Eastern Canada, then to Western Canada and then to the North. We did an English Theatre tour of Molière’s Tartuffe to Newfoundland, and we did a French Theatre tour of Gabriel Dumont’s Wild West Show  through Ottawa, Montréal, and then headed West. For an organization to do three tours of three different disciplines all at once was pretty exciting. Next year, the orchestra will celebrate the NAC’s 50th anniversary with a European tour.

The NAC Orchestra’s tour of China was a great case study in cultural diplomacy and building important cross-cultural partnerships. Can you tell our readers a bit more about this tour?

For the China tour, we were able to get a small but meaningful amount of money from Foreign Affairs (now Global Affairs) under John Baird, who was the Minister at the time. We told him we thought we could leverage the government funding about 6:1, and we did that in terms of raising private funding. As a result, we went to China with the tour fully paid in advance, and that allowed us to add other elements. We made sure that an Ottawa trade mission came with us, and that the Canada-China Business Council had their annual meeting while we were there. We persuaded the Minister of Foreign Affairs to be there and we brought the Governor General with us. We had several hundred Canadians with us on this tour!

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The NAC Orchestra at Southam Hall in Ottawa under the musical direction of Alexander Shelley. (Photo courtesy of the National Arts Centre.)

You will be retiring from the NAC at the end of the month. During your tenure, you have led many strategic initiatives which have transformed the NAC in myriad ways. What are some of these initiatives?

I have been here a long time, so there are a lot, but let me just mention a few. The very first one has to be the creation of the NAC Indigenous Theatre and then, a year later, the announcement of the appointment of Kevin Loring as the theatre’s first Artistic Director. This was such an emotional experience. There were hundreds of people at this press conference, which of course included Indigenous ceremony. People had flown in from across the country to be there. We all understood this was an historic moment in our collective history. Since then, we have put together the core of the team for the theatre and will launch in September 2019. At the time, I said that I wished we had done this 50 years ago, but really the fact that we have English, French and Indigenous theatres at the NAC reflects the new way in which we see Canada, and not the way we saw the country 50 years ago.

The second thing is that we did consultations across the country 10 years ago and came to the conclusion that one of the great weaknesses in the arts in Canada was that not enough was being done in terms of new creation in music, theatre and dance. Part of it was lack of funding, part of it was lack of time, part of it was lack of appropriate facilities, so we launched a $25 million campaign across Canada to raise venture capital for artists and arts organizations. We were successful with that campaign, particularly in Western Canada. It is very unusual for an Ottawa-based organization to be that successful with fundraising in another part of the country, and for such an unusual cause as well. This money is not for a tour or a new production, but is going to be used to invest in the development of new projects. A little over a year ago, we announced the first-ever National Creation Fund and Heather Moore took over running that. On June 8, we are going to announce the first ten investment decisions under this program and in the fall, we will announce another ten.

The third would be the Architectural Rejuvenation and Production Renewal Projects which together have not only changed the face of the National Arts Centre, but have also brought our performance facilities back to something close to state of the art. For years and years, we were an organization that had its back to the city and the capital. We faced the canal, with our back to the city, and that was somehow metaphorical. We were sending a subliminal message that the public is not really welcome here. It was dark and gloomy and a bit forbidding. So we have flipped the building, so it is now facing Elgin Street and the capital. It is more open and transparent. We want people to drop in for free events and activities, come in for coffee, meet with friends, use the place as a community hub, and of course, we would also be happy if they bought a ticket to see a show, but it is much more than that now. We hired 14 college and university students as welcome staff and their only job is to be there for people coming into the building to tell them about the place. So, not only has the NAC changed from an architectural point of view, but the biggest change is the psychology and sensibility of the place.

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“Carried Away on the Crest of a Wave,” a co-production of the NAC. (Photo courtesy of the National Arts Centre.)

In 2017, for Canada 150, we made a significant investment in partnering with the Canadian Opera Company to remount Harry Somers’ and Mavor Moore’s opera Louis Riel, arguably one of the most important Canadian operas ever produced.

The creation of the NAC Foundation was very important. It signalled to other crown corporations across the country that they can be both a crown and enterpreneurial. While it is important to receive government funding, it is even more important that you generate revenue from other sources. The NAC Foundation has raised about $140 million over the last 15 years, so it has made a huge difference for the organization.

Finally, I am very proud of the quality of the management team and the artistic leadership at the NAC. We have very strong teams. Gender parity is in the news a lot lately, and we quietly point out that of seven Artistic Directors at the NAC, five of them are women. The artistic team is arguably the best combined artistic leadership team in North America. There are places where you go to work because you need to, and there are places where you go because you really want to, and this is one of those places. People really like working here.

How many staff do you manage at the NAC and how would you describe your style of management?

There are about 900 people on average who work here full and part-time, including the executive and administrative staff, the artistic staff and the second-shift staff – the very important people who work at our shows in the evenings.

My management style is about setting a clear direction, finding the necessary resources to achieve our goals, hiring exceptional people, being a cheerleader for the team, and then managing with a light touch. The Artistic Director of English Theatre doesn’t need me to tell her what to do. She knows very well what needs to be done. The Artistic Directors and administrative staff work for me theoretically, but this is a pluralistic organization, and if the CEO has charted a clear path and hired the right people, they should be left to follow that path and the CEO should give them the space to do so.

I get quite involved in terms of helping with government relations, branding, shaping and managing the organization, rather than managing the day-to-day operations. I see myself much more as a leader than an administrator. I also make the distinction about the past, the present and the future. My job is almost entirely about the future. There are other people on my team who concentrate on the past and the current. That is a very important distinction.

What specific qualities do you look for when you are hiring an arts manager that are unique to the industry?

The first is sensibility, which includes a tolerance for ambiguity, something which is essential when working with artists and arts organizations, and especially an organization as complex as the NAC. If you believe everything is black and white, you are in the wrong place! The other thing in terms of sensibility is EQ – Emotional Quotient – which is key to working in this environment.

The second is experience. Because this organization is so big and complicated, I want to see that candidates have gained significant experience elsewhere, that they have already had successes and failures elsewhere, and that they have learned from those experiences.

The third is leadership skills.  As I said earlier, I believe leadership skills are more important than pure administrative skills.

The fourth would be a passion for the arts. We do 1,300 performances a year here, so if that is not of interest to you, you should probably work somewhere else!

The fifth is a “light touch” management style. The most effective managers at the NAC have this quality, which is very important. It doesn’t mean they are pushovers, but it means they achieve their goals without making a federal case of everything or micromanaging.

The sixth is having the ability to collaborate and work well with others.

I am looking for people who are risk-takers, people who have the ability to build partnerships, the ability to keep their egos in check and, finally, people with strong analytical skills.

If I can find all of these qualities in a candidate, they will probably do very well at the NAC!

Why do you think studies in international arts management are important for the profession and for the cultural sector?

The big change that is happening at the NAC is that we do so much that is international and someone who has international training has begun to understand the necessary international sensibility. I think about Cathy Levy, the Artistic Director of the NAC Dance program. Cathy is the ultimate international figure. She is brilliant at showcasing Canadian artists, but she is also so good at working with Israel, China and Argentina, for example, so her dance world really is international. People working with her have to have those kinds of international skills.

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“OCD LOVE” by Israeli dance company L-E-V. (Photo by Regina Brocke, courtesy of the National Arts Centre.)

The NAC French Theatre does a great deal of work with France. The NAC Orchestra is very much international in terms of its activities. We do a lot of work with international promoters, so a national organization like ours works on an international scale and people who only function on a local level are going to have problems. Everything is more interconnected now, thanks to social media and the way we do business, so those who are as comfortable working with colleagues in Oslo as they are with fellow Canadians are going to be more successful at an organization like the NAC. I think that other Canadian business schools are realizing that they have to emphasize the international much more in their curriculum.

There has been a lot of discussion in Canada about the fact that many of our cultural institutions are hiring arts leaders from outside Canada, rather than hiring Canadian talent.  What do you think is behind this trend and what should we be doing to ensure we are training and retaining arts leaders for middle management and executive positions?

First of all, I am deeply troubled that a lot of these jobs are not going to Canadians. Listen, I like the people who have been hired for these executive positions, but my concern is that Canadians didn’t get the jobs. I think there are a couple of reasons for it. First, we don’t have enough large organizations that can systematically train people for these CEO positions. We tend to have a few large ones and a lot of small to mid-sized organizations, which is not ideal for preparing people professionally for these kinds of jobs.

Secondly, I don’t think there is enough professional development for people who are potential high flyers. I’ll give you an example. When I went to Harvard Business School, the organization that sent the most people to the school was the US military. They had decided that the future of the US military was with an Officer Corps that was much better educated, must better prepared intellectually, so they went to business schools and PhD programs and decided to really develop their personnel in this way.

We have never said as a country that we have to develop Canadian talent in the cultural sector, both on the artistic side and the management side. We have to make a commitment that this is important to us. It is terrific that Karen Kain is the Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada, but we have to ensure that while she is there, we are preparing the next generation, so that when she retires, we have a couple of stellar Canadian candidates waiting in the wings who have a good shot at that position. The same thing goes for all of our major Canadian cultural organizations.

I have started conversations with the Banff Centre, for example, to see if they could begin professional development programs for those who are one job away from this level of leadership, so that there are intensive programs with ten or twelve other people in the same situation, both on the artistic and management side. I think the business schools themselves need to do this for professionals. Harvard does it brilliantly for their Advanced Management Program and their Professional Development for Managers Program. We need to create similar programs, because it is a real issue and it needs to be addressed. I have never seen it made a priority in this country. We frequently lose the really talented mid-career managers to the United States, and they are earning much better salaries in the US than they could ever make in Canada. The Canadian government has to recognize that it is a big deal that we train and help develop the careers of Canadians to run our cultural organizations.

You have had a fascinating career, starting out in journalism and reinventing yourself several times in executive leadership roles in broadcasting and publishing before coming to the National Arts Centre. What does it take to reinvent yourself? Do you have any advice for those who are considering moving into a new career in the cultural sector?

I was speaking with someone yesterday about the therapeutic value of being scared half to death! I have gone through several moments in my professional life when I had to start all over again, and each time I went from being somebody who was completely comfortable with the issues and the field I was in to going into a field where I knew effectively nothing. And it’s scary, it’s healthy, there’s a flood of new learning, it’s stimulating, it’s exciting and harrowing. And it’s really good for you, because it keeps you fresh and on your toes.

Ottawa, ON: NOVEMBER 21, 2008 – National Arts Centre CEO Peter Herndorff in Southam Hall Theatre. Photo by David Kawai

National Arts Centre CEO Peter Herndorff in Southam Hall Theatre. Ottawa, ON: November 21, 2008. (Photo: David Kawai.)

When I moved into publishing and I showed up for my first day of work, I thought they would all think I was a fraud, because I had never worked in publishing before. The first year was really tough, a steep learning curve. The second year was a bit easier, but the third year was exhilarating, because I had learned a whole new career.

The same happened when I went from broadcasting to the performing arts here at the NAC. The common denominator with all of my career moves was my passion and success at running creative organizations, but otherwise they were very different fields. I also had a reputation for coming into organizations that were in a bit of trouble, but my real transferable skill was that I knew how to work with creative people, people who did not work well with authority, who were very individualistic in their work.

When I left the CBC at 42, I was truly starting over again, but if I hadn’t made that move back then, my life would have been completely different. As it was, it was much more interesting doing a whole bunch of things, starting again, learning again, developing new muscles.

In this day and age, no one is staying in a career or any job for 30 or 40 years anymore.  Millennials and older generations will be changing careers several times over the course of their working lives, so it is important for them to develop the skills to be able to do that.

What are your plans for the next chapter of your life?

I am going to become a Senior Resident and Chair of Arts at Massey College, University of Toronto as of June. I was there for a year in 1998-1999. It is a very interesting environment, because there are Senior Fellows who are major scholars, there are post-graduate students, it is a real hothouse environment, so I am looking forward to that.

I have also agreed to become Chairman of the Board of the Luminato Festival in Toronto and start that in September. I am in the process of negotiating with another organization in Canada about taking a part-time job with them. I am still deciding about that, but if I have these three things to work on, that should either get me into trouble or keep me out of trouble!

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