On a sparkling Rocky Mountain Saturday night here this summer, the West’s elite rode into town for a ball. Their destination: the Banff Centre, a secluded spot, but one that’s clearly not isolated from the halls of power. Some 350 people made that trip in July for the soiree. For one night, the politically powerful, corporate leaders and cultural luminaries breathed the same mountain air and rubbed tuxedo- and ball-gown-adorned shoulders. Among the guests: Husky Energy CEO Asim Ghosh, as well as top executives from Talisman, RBC and a host of other energy and financial corporations; Banff Centre board members from as far away as Toronto; no fewer than four Alberta cabinet ministers; the Lieutenant-Governor; and the Premier herself.
“To be able to have an institution like this in our own province is something that we all need to be proud of, not only as Albertans but I would say also as Canadians,” Alberta Premier Alison Redford said in a speech that night.
They were there to celebrate the Banff Centre, but also to toast its new president, Jeff Melanson: a prairie boy who came to Alberta by way of Toronto, eschewing lucrative international offers to take on the position here.
Melanson dazzled that weekend, making a case for the centre – publicly and in countless private conversations – and even took a turn at the microphone to croon Fly Me to the Moon, wrapping this moneyed crowd of power brokers around his finger and cementing the notion that he is a leader capable of doing big things for Alberta.
The event netted $870,000 – a record for the ball and an impressive boost for Melanson’s vision of transforming the almost 80-year-old centre into a nimble 21st-century arts and media powerhouse, both taking advantage of and further solidifying the new power in the west: politically, economically and, yes, culturally.
This is a time, Melanson agrees, when if you’ve got big plans like his, it helps to be in a place like Alberta – where there’s money.
“Very much, so,” he says, in addition to “the pioneering spirit out here and wanting to take risks and do edgy things. I think people are tremendously proud of Alberta and tremendously proud of the Banff Centre and what we can do. And I think the perspective that the political leadership brings, which is global, enables us to have conversations that are a bit more aspirational and visionary than might otherwise be the case.”
If power and money are shifting west – to the political and ideological home of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the economic engine that’s currently driving the country – nobody is better positioned to harness that for the cultural good than Melanson: a savvy arts administrator armed with an MBA and a canny feel for both his core cultural constituency and the political right – call him the Tory whisperer.
At ease with Alberta’s governing Conservatives and its oil-rich philanthropists he calls the “super-donors,” and so charismatic one cultural colleague describes him as “Obama-esque,” Melanson even managed to broker a Margaret Atwood-Doug Ford reconciliation of sorts at the height of Librarygate in Toronto. People often refer to his height – he’s 6-foot-6 – but it’s a different kind of stature that makes people look twice – and listen.
Reimagining the profile of Banff
It’s hard not to be intoxicated by the Banff Centre. Nestled on the side of a mountain, the setting is idyllic and its raison d’être – to inspire creativity – has created a sort of artistic utopia where someone will make your meals and your bed so you can focus solely on making art in a setting that encourages cultural cross-pollination.
The list of cultural luminaries who have passed through its (metaphorical) gates and the amount of art created in this place is staggering: Mavis Gallant has written here; Oscar Peterson helped establish the jazz-education program; artists Janet Cardiff and Brian Jungen are among those who were inspired in this setting to create what would become their signatures: in their case, audio walks and Air Jordan masks, respectively.