For the record: In the roughly 10 months Jeffrey James Melanson served as special adviser on the arts to Mayor Rob Ford, he never once attended one of the famous Ford family barbecues in the backyard of the mayor’s home on Edenbridge Drive in Etobicoke.
Stephen Harper can claim that privilege, having had a much-publicized chow-down with His Worship in early August. But not Mr. Melanson.
“I’ve barbecued in my backyard, though.”
“No, not with him,” he replied straight-faced, then let out the sort of gotcha laugh (big) that only a Cabbagetown guy with a lean frame spread over six feet, six inches can let out.
“At one point, there was a call [to eat grilled meats at Casa Ford]” Mr. Melanson averred the other day. He was sitting in his spacious, very woody Jarvis Street office at the National Ballet School of Canada, where he’s been executive director and co-chief executive officer since 2006. “But I just couldn’t make it. And now, with everything going on, it’s going to be about family and friends for the next little while, as much as possible.”
“Everything” in this instance refers to Mr. Melanson’s departure next week from his ballet school perch in preparation for his relocation (and that of wife Jennifer and children Caelan, Madeleine and Claire) to Alberta where, in January, 2012, he becomes executive director of The Banff Centre.
Only 38, the Winnipeg-born Melanson has been something of a wunderkind in the Canadian arts firmament, having parlayed a music degree and an MBA into, among other achievements, the deanship (at 28) of the Royal Conservatory of Music Community School, then the NBS job four years later. He’s helped the NBS, founded in 1959, to post consecutive surpluses in the last five fiscal years (after a $3-million deficit in 2005-2006) while becoming, in 2010, the first arts administrator to be named to Canada’s Top 40 Under 40, the annual round-up of youngish big wheels in government, business and not-for-profits.
Over the years, Mr. Melanson has developed a reputation as a canny operator, not least for his advocacy of “cultural entrepreneurship.”
“The arts don’t have a spending problem; they have a revenue problem,” he likes to say. But since public-sector support for an arts organization’s budget is going, at best, to hold steady or, at worst, decline, the organization has to become more savvy about private-sector fundraising and “maximizing earned revenue streams.” Similarly, artists themselves are going to have to be taught entrepreneurial skills if they wish to escape the hell of “70-hour work weeks for 20-hour pay.”
It’s this kind of talk that brought Mr. Melanson to Rob Ford’s attention shortly after his election last fall, resulting in the invitation to serve as Mr. Ford’s liaison with the city’s arts community. In a move some arts types deemed tantamount to Princess Leia obligingly bedding Darth Vader, Mr. Melanson accepted, albeit with the now-famous proviso that Mr. Ford not cut the city’s arts budget.
Mr. Melanson characterizes his stint as arts adviser as “a good experience, a very stressful experience … where I’ve been able to do a few somewhat helpful things.
“I have to give full marks to everybody so far – the councillors, the mayor’s office, the arts community. Certainly we saw a recommendation from the city manager’s office [to cut the $6-million that the city gives annually to 10 cultural organizations, including $137,000 to the NBS]that was irresponsible and the mayor, I think, rightly objected to that proposal.
“But,” he cautioned, “we are living in tough economic times and I think this theme of austerity is going to be a tough one for every sector, including the arts, where we’re already stretching a dollar as far as you can.” At the same time, Mr. Melanson said he thought the mayor’s office “to date has really responded to the message that culture’s very important to a city.”
So far there’s been no indication if Mr. Ford intends to continue to have an arts adviser. “I’m hopeful the position will be replaced,” Mr. Melanson offered.
Has Mr. Melanson proffered any names as a successor?
“Well, I’ve given the mayor a list of potential folk but I know they’ve got their own ideas, too … It is not an easy role to fill.” In the meantime, “we’ve got to figure out how to talk to politicians, and that means all of them. What’s happened in Toronto, which has been really amazing, is that the community has gotten more adept at that. With the status of arts education, though, fewer and fewer people are getting exposed to the arts in the public-school system. Which means we’re going to be interacting more and more with politicians who don’t have an arts background, having to find ways to connect with them.”
“Every politician needs to have a strategy with respect to arts and culture,” Mr. Melanson noted. “And the notion that a politician can run a government with no sense of what arts and culture can do for him is very peculiar to me … We’d not let a politician have no views on education or health care. The arts need that kind of consideration.”