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Jeff Melanson (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail/Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)
Jeff Melanson (Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail/Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)

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Entrepreneurship and diversity are main concerns of Rob Ford's new arts adviser Add to ...

One day last month, Nick Kouvalis, chief of staff to Rob Ford, placed a call to Jeff Melanson, executive director of Canada's National Ballet School. The freshly minted mayor planned to create a new position - special adviser on arts and culture. Might Mr. Melanson be interested?

Mr. Melanson said he would, with one caveat: If the mayor cut a single penny from current arts funding levels, Mr. Melanson would be gone, not without making noise. The mayor agreed, and Mr. Melanson signed on to the unpaid role.

It's no mystery Mr. Ford wanted him. Only 37 years old, an imposing six-foot-six with prematurely grey hair, Mr. Melanson is a cultural wunderkind - the first arts executive named to Canada's Top 40 Under 40. He has spent the last, whirlwind decade reinvigorating three Toronto-based organizations - Opera Ontario, The Royal Conservatory of Music and, since 2006, the NBS - in the process, vaulting into the ranks of the city's arts elite.

Former RCM board chair Florence Minz calls Mr. Melanson "smart, ambitious, energetic, articulate, charming, assertive, and a great fundraiser. But he's not patronizing. He's not a 'my way or the highway' kind of guy."

Although the new mayor is hardly his kindred spirit politically, Mr. Melanson has championed a philosophy of cultural enterprise that Fordians can unapologetically endorse.

It's based on two bedrock assumptions - first, that in an age of government budget restraint, arts organizations and artists themselves need to become more entrepreneurial. Second, given Canada's rapidly changing demographics, the arts must work harder at education and outreach; if they don't, he says, audiences will start to disappear.

"In fairness," Mr. Melanson explains, "the kind of [ethnic and racial]diversification we've seen in 40 years is unprecedented. The challenge in the arts is this tension between renewal and adherence to past practice. On one level, we're building on great traditions, which need to be there, but we also need to adapt. We haven't reached out in ways that we should."

Nor is this mere rhetorical flourish. As dean of the Royal Conservatory's community school - its fidelity to classical traditions embedded in its very name - Mr. Melanson initially stunned faculty members by suggesting that it supplement programs by tapping talent in far-flung racial and ethnic enclaves.

It was embarrassing, he says, to speak at conferences around the world where Toronto was routinely saluted as the world's most ethnic city, knowing that the RCM's own registry of students did not reflect that diversity.

No less embarrassing, once the initiative was sold internally, was discovering "incredibly talented artists in Toronto that we didn't know about."

He spent a year visiting different communities - everything from soccer clubs to church groups. At first, he concedes, "we didn't do it well - at all. We were doing more telling than listening." In time, a realization dawned. "Instead of our saying, paternalistically, 'Look, we've had a great revelation and are coming to you,' it became like a R&D project, and we were asking them, 'How is culture transmitted from generation to generation? How is it taught? Where does it fit in the social context?' Because art is always connected to the social context. It's not standalone."

Eventually, the RCM's program expanded to include courses in Latin American, African, Indian, Indonesian and Chinese music, as well as classes in jazz, urban music and DJing.

"Jeff is fearless about trying new things," says one of his mentors, RCM head Peter Simon. "He's not afraid to fail. And he's exceptionally bright. He connects things that other people can't. We all know multimedia and the Internet are part of the future. The real question is how we're going to use them. Jeff will bring his judgment to bear on that."

In his four years at NBS, Mr. Melanson's initiatives raised annual revenues by 50 per cent, erasing a significant annual operating deficit. Private sector donations are up 77 per cent. And he has again catalyzed new, strategic partnerships with various arts organizations.

It is characteristic of Mr. Melanson's charm and savvy that he wrote me a note this week, insisting that credit for his achievements must be shared with "many talented and amazing people." At the RCM, Peter Simon "gave me a lot of rope." And at NBS, "my success would not be possible without my great working relationship with [artistic director]Mavis Staines. I'm a team builder."

Still, it's his vision the team is implementing. Wanttodance.ca, an online registry, connects 1,200 dance schools with 750,000 recreational dancers across Canada. Next month, the school will roll out a national digital platform allowing public-school teachers to access videos created by Canadian choreographers and musicians, enabling students to learn and recreate routines from any corner of the country.

Mr. Melanson also hopes to launch a city-wide project enabling 45,000 young Torontonians in community housing to access music, dance, theatre and other arts.

In fact, arts literacy is his foundation. As promising as the digital revolution might be, it won't generate much artistic quality in the absence of education. An orphan in many school curricula, arts education is "the No. 1 issue facing the arts sector," he maintains. "And if you believe in [the power of]creative economies, it may be the No. 1 issue - period."

Mr. Melanson does not come to these views by accident. He grew up in a working-class family in Winnipeg - his father delivered mail for the post office, his brother is an auto mechanic - with minimal exposure to the arts. As a result, "the filter I tend to bring is that art is relevant to everybody. I'm trying to find ways to take art off its aesthetic pedestal and give it back to people."

Initially enrolled in actuarial science at the University of Manitoba, Mr. Melanson had an epiphany halfway through first year: he didn't want to study applied math. He wanted to sing. The day he told his father the news, he says, "must have been the worst day of his life."

Finishing his degree in music at the University of Manitoba, he continued opera studies under Oberlin Conservatory legend Richard Miller. There, he says, "I began to realize that, as much as I loved being on stage, many people were as talented as I was." Perhaps, he reasoned, his skill set could best serve the arts in other ways.

Soon after, he embarked on a management MBA at Sir Wilfred Laurier University and, at graduation, had two offers - one "at close to six figures" with an insurance company, the second as development director at Opera Ontario at one-third the salary. Mr. Melanson made the "radically impractical choice" and has never looked back.

Although there was early blogosphere sniping at his new civic consultancy, and fear he might acquiesce to grant cuts, most of the city's arts community is adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

"It's a surprisingly inspired appointment," says actor and director Maja Ardal. "Melanson must convince the mayor that we need to invest further in our arts." David Yee, interim artistic director of Fu-Gen, an Asian-Canadian theatre company, says he'll be "watching how the new administration supports artists of colour representing the cultural diaspora." It's precisely that diaspora Mr. Melanson aims to reach.

The risk for Toronto, of course, is that he might one day be wooed away by a major American institution, at a multiple of salary. He's already spurned a few offers.

In the meantime, he's enthusiastically pitching the NBS's centre for cultural entrepreneurship, to teach emergent artists and arts executives how to build sustainable businesses. "People have misinterpreted me on this point," he insists. "It does not mean reducing government funding. But future growth will be more dependent on private-sector support. And most artists now don't receive any of that training. We need to focus on the goal: building more robust arts organizations."

 

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