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Banff Centre president Jeff Melanson with some of the facility's new infrastructure in Banff, Alta., Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012. (Jeff McIntosh)
Banff Centre president Jeff Melanson with some of the facility's new infrastructure in Banff, Alta., Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012. (Jeff McIntosh)

CULTURE

Meet Jeff Melanson, the arts impresario even conservatives can love Add to ...

Nine months into his tenure as president, Melanson is pushing forward with aggressive changes aimed at creating a more national and international profile not just for the centre, but for the work that artists create here.

Melanson has an application into the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to take over the local radio station, plans for a major Web presence (think Ted Talks), and perhaps most significantly, he wants the centre to stop being a presenting institution and focus solely on creating works that will then be accessible through the technological channels he is cultivating. Down the road in his empire-building, there are plans for new cultural facilities to replace the aging infrastructure.

To make it happen, Melanson is looking at a capital campaign that will have to raise hundreds of millions of dollars (although he’s not offering a dollar figure at this point).

“The Banff Centre was founded in 1933 in the midst of the Depression,” Melanson said in his airy office on Tuesday, as a light early snow fell outside. “So for anybody who says, ‘The economy isn’t great, Jeff; be more careful with your aspirations,’ no, that’s not actually true.”

 

A mountain of money

 

Tory whisperer or not, Melanson has his work cut out for him.

The Banff Centre, with an annual operating budget of about $58-million, receives just under $21-million in government operating grants, most of that from the province.

In Ottawa, the funding climate is such that the arts community cheered the fact that there were no cuts in Canada Council funding in the last federal budget. (Heritage Minister James Moore was not available for an interview about the Banff Centre.)

As for private-sector donations, Alberta may be booming, but the global economy remains shaky. Further, as a result of that, the centre has seen a substantial decline in its conference-centre revenues.

Phase One of the centre’s campus renewal program – which included the sparkling new Kinnear Centre for Creativity & Innovation and the 1,600-seat outdoor Shaw Amphitheatre – was realized at a cost of $100-million. This predated Melanson’s arrival; now he has a much longer list of cultural facilities in his sights that need replacing or refurbishing.

“He just has so many dreams. I think working with us as the board, he’s going to have to kind of prioritize those dreams along with us,” says board chair Brenda Mackie, who was on the search committee that hired Melanson – and is clearly a fan. “And you have to think also about what resonates with your donors and what resonates with government funders. What do we need to do to get us where we need to be?”

Mackie adds that the board is eager to see Melanson, with his profile and connections, secure more philanthropic support nationally. But, she adds, “Before you can ask for the money from people outside of Alberta, you have to make people aware of what we are.”

Melanson himself places a lot of faith in the Redford government, which provides the centre with its base operating grant.

“The conversation that Alison Redford is leading ... is around sort of a bigger vision for what Alberta can be. So certainly Alberta is a strong economic engine for Canada, but what more can it be? And how does the economy diversify? How does the society diversify?” says Melanson, adding he’s had meaningful conversations with a number of cabinet ministers about these issues. “It’s not sometimes the typical argument that the arts sector faces in terms of trying to convince politicians that we’re a worthwhile investment. The politicians are already there; it’s just a question of what they should invest in, and how – which is pretty exciting to be at that stage of the conversation rather than trying to have to push the rock up the hill for another couple years.”

 

From Mozart to an MBA

 

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