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Jeff Melanson and Eleanor McCain in New York May 1, 2014. (Eric Thayer/Eric Thayer)
Jeff Melanson and Eleanor McCain in New York May 1, 2014. (Eric Thayer/Eric Thayer)

Meet Jeff Melanson, Canada's cultural turnaround man Add to ...

The term rock-star arts administrator is not used with great regularity – even less so with “Canadian” tacked on in front of it – but this is a story about one. Jeff Melanson shocked the Canadian arts establishment last month when he announced that he was leaving the Banff Centre, the renowned creativity incubator and performance hub, where he has been president since 2012. Two weeks later, another announcement: He would be, come the fall, president and CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

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When, Melanson, now 40, strode into Banff two years ago, he had big plans. Since then, he has removed some key employees, brought in his own team, and articulated an audacious billion-dollar blueprint that includes everything from new facilities to new ways of sharing what happens in Banff with the world. It was a bold vision – and Melanson appeared to be the guy who could make it happen. But he will not be seeing it through.

He heads back to Toronto with a fair bit to look forward to. There is a prestigious Massey College residency at the University of Toronto. There’s an engagement to torch singer Eleanor McCain, a member of one of Canada’s most powerful and wealthy families. And there’s the opportunity to be in the same city with his three children again – the main factor behind his decision to leave Banff roughly half-way through a five-year contract.

Charismatic and popular, Melanson has nonetheless experienced some bumps, one involving a personnel issue that continues to play out. And while this rock-star arts administrator hasn’t exactly trashed the hotel room, he is leaving the mountain retreat a little high and dry. The board is putting a brave face on it, but its ability to raise all that money, implement all those changes, and build all that infrastructure without the guy who dreamed up the big vision will no doubt be compromised – or at the very least, delayed.

And while it may be a nice soft landing for Melanson back home in Toronto, the TSO job comes with its share of hard challenges: By the time Melanson arrives, it will have been run by an interim leadership for more than a year. And it is deep in the red, with an accumulated deficit of more than $12-million.

Shaking things up at Banff

Melanson officially started at the Banff Centre on Jan. 1, 2012. Fresh off a successful run in leadership positions at the National Ballet School and the Royal Conservatory of Music Community School – as well as a stint as cultural adviser to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford – Melanson signed a five-year deal and was widely expected to remain in place for a decade. “He could have [then] gone and run any arts institution in the world,” says Banff Centre board member Joe Shlesinger, who was on the committee that recruited Melanson for the position.

Melanson wasted little time making his mark. He renewed the Centre’s leadership program; announced an aggressive new content-dissemination strategy; and advocated for a shift in focus from performance to arts incubation that would include an emphasis on multidisciplinary work. He also launched an ambitious plan that would see new or expanded facilities on both the mountainside campus and in downtown Banff, including gallery and performance spaces. The price tag for his vision, as detailed in the 2013 strategic plan: about $1-billion through 2017-18, with the funding split roughly three ways between the federal and provincial governments and the private sector.

He also removed several key figures – including the vice-president, programming, Sarah Iley; the artistic director of theatre arts, Kelly Robinson; and Henk Guittart, the director of fall and winter creative music residencies.

His direction – and the rapid pace with which he was pursuing it – rubbed some the wrong way. Changes to the classical-music residency, for example, drew fire from some quarters, as did some personnel decisions.

Well aware of his detractors, Melanson stands by his actions. “Our arts organizations exist to inspire people. That’s what we’re there for. We’re not actually there to sustain broken business models or try to figure out how to maintain collapsing infrastructure,” he said during an interview from Toronto. “I’ve definitely heard the criticism and so on in terms of speed, but I don’t think we have time to waste.”

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