Born in Winnipeg, Melanson (emphasis on the second syllable) played football in high school (left guard), trained as an opera singer and completed his MBA at Wilfrid Laurier University. In Toronto, he was dean at the Royal Conservatory of Music Community School and then executive director and co-CEO of the National Ballet School. He took over the latter under terrible conditions – he recalls hearing the words “insolvency” and “bankruptcy” at his first finance meeting – but led the institution through a period of tremendous growth. Annual revenues went from $10-million in 2006 when he joined the organization to $22-million in 2011, the year he left.
In his last year in Toronto, he took on another challenge. He was appointed special adviser on arts and culture to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford shortly after Ford’s election. Melanson came to the administration’s attention as a result of a profile in Canadian Business magazine (which had worried some colleagues; in the piece, Melanson suggested that artists look beyond government for funding). The appointment was a surprise to many in the cultural community – and some still feel it was a public-relations exercise that Melanson was politically naive to accept – but Melanson disagrees and says he has no regrets in taking the job.
“Knowing the uncertainty that was around the future of arts funding at that point and the city’s economic circumstances, it didn’t seem like there was really a choice for me,” Melanson says. “I was, like, okay for me as a person individually, I could opt out of this and it would be a lot easier – and it would have been a lot easier. ‘Cause I don’t think I personally gained a whole lot in that year honestly and it took a toll in terms of time and physically and so on. But it just seemed there was a greater good in terms of working with him in some way.”
Melanson was able to exit the position gracefully when last year he beat out a handful of other shortlisted candidates and was offered the position of Banff Centre president. He was 37.
There is a tendency in the province to take pride in luring Melanson from Toronto, and his decision to choose Banff over places like New York. “To attract somebody of that talent and calibre out to Alberta is, I think, a terrific endorsement,” said Derek Neldner, who himself moved to Calgary from Toronto six years ago to take on the position of managing director and regional head, Alberta, for RBC Capital Markets.
RBC has given the Banff Centre more than $2-million over the last two decades, and that’s how Neldner learned about the Centre. He’d never heard of it, despite having grown up in Edmonton.
The halo effect
Beyond Calgary’s boardrooms, there is palpable excitement in the city’s rehearsal halls. Arts administrators who labour to get out the message that there’s more to the city’s culture than the Stampede are anxious to welcome another of their own to the campaign. Melanson’s arrival is perceived not just as a vote of confidence in Alberta’s cultural scene, but one that could produce a bit of a halo effect down the highway in Calgary and also provide new opportunities for collaboration.
“I hope he knocks on every door in Calgary,” says Dennis Garnhum, who moved here from New York seven years ago to become artistic director of Theatre Calgary.
“A guy like that doesn’t drop into Banff because he needs a job. A guy like that’s going to come and revolutionize the place,” says Garnhum. “I put my money on it that it’s going to become a different place because of Jeff.”
Garnhum will host a belated welcome dinner party for Melanson in early October. Among those on the guest list: Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maître, who moved to Calgary from Montreal, and the ballet’s executive director Martin Bragg, who moved here from Toronto.
“It goes back to this Western thing,” says Garnhum, a booster of Calgary’s cultural scene. “The classic joke: I guess Alberta might not be so bad if Jeff Melanson wants to come here.”
Meanwhile, back in Toronto