THE NAC: Canada’s Stage, Transformed

Feature photo by David Kawai

It’s not often that the head of a major cultural organization has been able to thank both the Harper and Trudeau governments for major investments in their organizations.

But on July 1, 2017, at the lavish opening of the revitalized and expanded National Arts Centre, the Centre’s Peter Herrndorf did just that with Prince Charles and the governor general in attendance.

In a rare show of solidarity on the importance of the Elgin Street icon in the capital’s and Canada’s life, John Baird, the NCC minister under Prime Minister Harper announced in 2014 a $110.5 million grant for NAC revitalization, and in the 2016 Liberal budget a further $114.9 million was announced for production and performance hall upgrades. 

Herrndorf, who in September announced his departure as president and CEO of the NAC after 18 years at its helm, is typically modest about his role in pulling off the major transformation of the facility.

Although he was close with Baird and has great respect for Trudeau’s Minister of Culture Melanie Joly, he credits his staff and board members as the team which cultivated “champions at cabinet level and at Treasury Board” to get the successive grants – with the help of convincing renderings of the new NAC.

Ottawa now has a true palace of culture on Elgin St.

It was Lester B. Pearson’s dream to have a cultural centre in the capital to celebrate Canada’s centennial in 1967.

In his friend G. Hamilton Southam, an ex-diplomat and influential Ottawa resident, he found a willing and energetic patron. He became the NAC’s director general for the first 10 years of its existence and recruited Mario Bernardi as the NAC’s orchestra’s first conductor.

The varied program of music, dance and theatre quickly became the principal performance attraction for Ottawa’s residents and visitors. It now boasts 1.2 million attendees annually, and as the venue for important national occasions has welcomed royalty, presidents and prime ministers.

Interestingly, Southam’s influence lived on, as Herrndorf for the past 10 years has had regular lunches at which he said Southam often told “what I should be doing, and what I was not doing.”

He was asked by the family to deliver the eulogy at Southam’s funeral in 2008. He was flattered to be considered “an honorary member of the family.” Southam would be pleased by the magnificent new hall which still bears his name.

Herrndorf’s gift for making and keeping friendships is legendary. You always get a personal Christmas card, and he keeps in touch. He is rumoured to have the largest rolodex (now contact list) in Canada.

I worked with him at the national CBC Sunday TV program The Way It Is. We were both involved in the 80s with the Canadian Journalism Foundation. I worked with him as well on the ill-fated 1995 w on the CBC, NFB and Telefilm Canada.

He was always calm, effective, organized and devoted completely to whatever he took on.

For probably the most effective leader of a cultural organization in Canada he has a remarkably low profile. “I have very consciously felt I could be best kind of advocate by being understated, and let the eight to 10 senior people speak on behalf of the NAC,” he said.

This characteristic, his ability to listen and delegate makes him the “dream boss," one of his senior staff told me.

He is a huge fan of Ottawa even if he returned to his home and family in Toronto most weekends. “Ottawa has become a second home,” he told me lauding its mix of “fascinating people of every kind."

Perhaps his most important accomplishment is taking the NAC out of Ottawa and putting the national firmly into it.

As Board Chair Adrian Burns said, “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.”

The most striking recent example of this nation-wide inclusivity was his recent announcement that the NAC will open a new Department of Indigenous Theatre to mark its 50th Anniversary in 2019, led by Indigenous actor and playwright Kevin Loring. Indigenous artists across Canada have lauded the move as an important step in reconciliation.

The NAC’s future has never been more promising or secure thanks to Herrndorf.

As for Herrndorf’s future, he has received many offers. He looks forward to advising, not managing. Ottawa might not have seen the last of him.