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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.”

The board was onside with Melanson’s plan, and he began to go out and sell it with persuasive confidence to potential donors and funders.

But there was a personal situation brewing at home. Since accepting the job, Melanson had split from his wife. Their children – now 11, 13 and 15 – had lived with him in Banff for many months, but after the divorce was finalized they returned to Toronto to live with their mother. It was becoming too difficult for Melanson to be away from them. Another factor was his engagement, after an April 4 concert, to McCain, who lives in Toronto. He made the decision to move back east.

Surprise – and disappointment

Melanson broke the news to board chair Brenda Mackie during the second week of April, over dinner.

“I don’t know whether I turned white or red, but I was surprised,” said Mackie from Calgary, where she lives.

On April 10, he gave the board his resignation at an afternoon meeting. Three hours later at a town hall, he addressed the staff inside the Centre’s Eric Harvie Theatre, choking up at one point. “It’s very hard for me,” he said in our interview. “The job was such a perfect alignment with everything I want to see happen in the world.”

In the boardroom and in that theatre, there was shock.

“I was very surprised and disappointed,” says Shlesinger, who was contacted with the news back in Toronto, where he lives. “I think it’s a loss for the Banff Centre. I loved working with him. He’s smart, he’s focused, he’s got a strategy that we all as a board and the institution as a whole have rallied behind.”

It will be a long good-bye – Melanson will stay on in the position until Sept. 15. But transitions at the top are tricky and require a great deal of lead-up; Melanson’s own contract stipulates 12 months’ notice.

Is he leaving the Centre in the lurch? That’s not the term Shlesinger uses, but he does say this: “It’s kind of a step back. You lose organizational momentum, you lose energy, you lose time. You think you’ve put [the selection of a new president and the change that comes with it] behind you – for five years at least and probably 10. I feel let down that we have to go through this again.”

The Centre, which receives a third of its funding from taxpayers, did make an investment in Melanson – he was moved out to Banff with his family. And tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of renovations were undertaken to his residence (although work on the house was needed). And there is unfinished business, to be sure, in his barely in-progress big-vision plan.

Melanson also leaves behind another unresolved issue: the termination last year of a director at the Centre who had reported directly to him, and with whom he had had a brief relationship; she is still seeking severance. (The woman declined to speak with The Globe and Mail, and neither Melanson nor Mackie would comment when asked about this.)

Disappointed over his decision to leave, the board nonetheless needed to look forward. In a meeting the day after Melanson’s announcement, they began discussing what comes next, for the position and the strategic plan. “We strongly feel we don’t want to lose momentum.… We’ll use Jeff in the next months that he’s here to help us work through that as much as he can,” said Mackie, who will request an extension to her term on the board, scheduled to end in December, so she can assist with the transition. “It’s tough [but] we’ll get through it. The Banff Centre has never been and can never be about one person.”

Melanson points to the progress he has made. He has secured $73-million in supplemental funding since his arrival, and he is aiming to break $100-million before he leaves. The Centre has shortlisted three firms – Toronto-based KPMB Architects, Vancouver-based Bing Thom Architects and the Danish firm Bjarke Ingels – to carry out planning and concept development for the campus renewal, including in downtown Banff. The Centre is revitalizing its publishing division, has acquired radio frequencies and put a radio team in place; and a new director of Visual/Digital Arts has recently arrived from Australia. Melanson says he feels he’s made great progress.

Still, if his departure doesn’t put his overarching plan in jeopardy, it’s certain at the very least to be a scheduling setback. An announcement on an interim president is expected shortly, and, for the permanent position, Mackie says the board will be looking for a “steadying influence.… We don’t want somebody that needs to come in and change things around.”

As for the leader they’re losing, says Carolyn Warren, whom Melanson brought in from the CBC to be vice-president, arts, last year, “Now we get our man in Toronto. I know he will be an advocate [for the Banff Centre] and a really interesting collaborator. He’s bridging the country – Banff in Toronto, and Toronto in Banff.”

A proposal in the night

For Melanson, the engagement to McCain is another driving force behind his return to Toronto.

He knew McCain’s parents first – Wallace and Margaret McCain co-chaired the multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign for the new National Ballet School, where Melanson was executive director and co-CEO before going to Banff. Wallace McCain, who died in 2011, was “one of the great business mentors of my career,” says Melanson.

A few years ago, the frozen-foods scion asked if Melanson might give his daughter some advice about the music industry, and the two struck up a friendship. They lost touch over the years, but last December they met for coffee in Toronto, and then began a long-distance relationship.

After consulting McCain’s mother, Melanson proposed on opening night of Eleanor’s Maritime Swing Tour with Matt Dusk, in her hometown of Florenceville, N.B. They were back at the McCain family home, where they were staying, and Melanson pulled McCain into her father’s old study.

“He got down on one knee,” recalls McCain, “and said, ‘I really wanted to propose to you here so that your dad could be part of this too, because he meant so much to both of us.’ ”

McCain, 44, who has been divorced from her second husband for almost 11 years, has a 12-year-old daughter. “The kids are all supportive and they like each other and we feel very blessed in that regard,” says McCain. “They’re behind it too, and I think they can see we’re a little kooky for each other.”

Canada’s newest arts power couple is talking about a fall wedding. By then, home for Melanson will be Toronto, the Banff Centre should be under the leadership of an interim president, and Melanson will be about to begin work at the TSO, where he starts Nov. 1.

The TSO makes its move

As Melanson tells it, he had already made his decision to leave the Banff Centre when he was approached by the TSO, which has been looking for a replacement for Andrew Shaw since his departure last year. The orchestra was in discussions over the winter with a lead candidate in the U.S. when that person informed the board that he was taking a job at a teaching institution.

Shortly after that, Board Chair Chris Hodgson heard through the grapevine that Melanson was planning to leave Banff for Toronto. The TSO began a serious pursuit, mindful of other arts-leadership jobs open or opening up in Ontario. “He’s a change agent and we needed somebody who was going to look at things a bit differently,” says Hodgson.

The TSO’s budget deficit was $1.27-million in 2012-13, up from $837,000 the previous fiscal year – and the accumulated deficit is $12.2-million. Melanson, with his music background and an MBA, and his political and philanthropic connections, was seen as an ideal candidate to turn things around.

Still, there was some concern, given his early departure from Banff, over whether he would stay put at the TSO, and Melanson was asked about this during the interview process. The TSO concluded that the determining factor in his leaving Banff was his personal situation.

TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian was also consulted, and saw in Melanson a guy “full of energy and vision and charisma” who could be the kind of public figure the orchestra needs as an advocate. He also saw a like mind when it comes to the value of touring – while Shaw, Oundjian says, had a different perspective. “This kind of vision is what the TSO needs,” says Oundjian, who takes the TSO to Europe this summer.

Oundjian had a lengthy meeting with Melanson ahead of a TSO performance of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben on April 12, two days after Melanson announced that he was leaving the Banff Centre. The TSO announced Melanson’s appointment on April 24. (That same day, the University of Toronto revealed that Melanson had been appointed Senior Resident at Massey College, and a Senior Fellow at the U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs.)

“He’s a disruptive innovator and so I think it would be safe to say that status quo is not going to be the way the Toronto Symphony moves forward,” says Hodgson.

Adds Oundjian, “The board is very driven now. This is hopefully a launching pad for the TSO.”

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