Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta is renowned for its locale, for the mountains that draw artists from across the country to meet and find inspiration in the surroundings and their fellow students. It’s a jewel in the crown for the Prairie province, a successful enterprise that put the town on the map, globally, as an exciting cultural destination. Once a lone drama course operated by the University of Alberta, over 90 years, it has sprawled into a juggernaut of conference facilities, residences, hospitality areas and arts spaces nestled in the Rocky Mountains. Luminaries from Oscar Peterson and A.Y. Jackson to Tanya Tagaq and Measha Brueggergosman have attended; there are some 3,000 participants annually. In a typical year at Banff Centre, there are more than 150 premieres, more than 50 commissioned art works and more than 500 performances and events, most of which are free.
Of course, 2020 was not a typical year.
Last year, arts organizations everywhere struggled to get through the pandemic and imagine a future. Initially, with the government-ordered shut-down, the Centre temporarily laid off about 75 per cent of its staff. Now, in 2021, Banff Centre, which had more than 500 staff pre-COVID, is down to just more than 150 active employees, with a handful still on temporary layoff.
“I go out on a walk across the campus, and, you know, I’m not going to lie, there’s been times, I’ve had tears in my eyes,” Banff Centre president and CEO Janice Price says about the early days of the shutdown. “You look at it and it just does feel surreal.”
But the fallout from COVID-19 also laid bare pre-existing tensions in the organization. At a crucial moment as Banff Centre dreams up a new way to function – one that relies less on the cachet of location – the centre is facing another challenge: discontent. As the pandemic raged and the campus grew silent, artists and former employees began to speak out about concerns they have had for some time that Banff Centre is losing its way; that it has been so focused on the balance sheet that its original mandate as an arts incubation hub has suffered.
“There’s been a lot of upheaval and change there and it’s been tough,” says Shauna Thompson, a former curatorial assistant at Banff Centre’s Walter Phillips Gallery. She recalls someone in the marketing department describing the visual arts as the “poor cousin” of the Centre.
“We were always kind of this, like, problem child that wasn’t bringing in any money. And so therefore wasn’t really worth people’s time. That was the feeling that I had.”
One essential thing the concerned artists and former employees have in common with the Banff Centre’s administration: they want to see it thrive.
“What I’d like you to know is just how greatly so many of us that are now on the outside well and truly mourn for the place,” said Nicole Nickel-Lane, who worked in development at Banff Centre and was permanently laid off in June.
“It’s just such a shame – this place that was 90 years in the making, that became Canada’s pre-eminent arts training institution. Where is it going now?”
The devastation wrought by the pandemic on arts institutions across this country is unprecedented. How do you do your job if your job is bringing people together to make and experience art?
When bestselling U.S. author Susan Orlean first visited Banff Centre – where she spent two summers chairing its literary journalism program – one of her first thoughts was: why don’t we have something like this in the United States?
“You’re heading off to your writing studio and you’re passing ballerinas and people carting cellos and you just feel like there’s something really vital and important in making art and that you’re part of it,” Orlean said.
Banff Centre’s funding and governance model is unique. It is a non-degree granting postsecondary institution that operates under Alberta’s Ministry of Advanced Education. Funding comes from the provincial and federal government as well as corporate and private donors.
Founded by the University of Alberta in 1933 with a single course in drama, in 1935 it became the Banff School of Fine Arts and in 1970 the Banff Centre for Continuing Education. In 1978, the Alberta government granted it full autonomy as a non-degree granting educational institution.
Since the 1950s, it has cultivated business as a conference centre and leadership training facility. Last year its revenue was $70.2-million; nearly half of that self-generated – thanks to conference and hospitality revenue as well as tuition and ticket sales. About a third came from provincial and federal grants, and just under 20 per cent from donations, sponsorships and investment earnings, primarily endowment-related, Banff says. Its operating budget was $71.3-million.
With COVID-19, what Banff Centre officials consider a core strength – the non-government funding that the hospitality business was bringing in – suddenly became an Achilles heel.
Months of conference business and the revenue that comes with that – which typically represents about 35 per cent of the operating budget – disappeared in a matter of days. The forecasted revenue for this fiscal year is $36.1-million – a reduction of close to 50 per cent. Its forecasted expenditure for this fiscal year is $39.1-million.
On March 19, the Centre issued just more than 400 temporary layoff notices by e-mail.
With the campus closed, what Orlean called a “beehive of artistic endeavour” – the cellos, the ballerinas – went silent.
Leadership reached out to donors, asking permission to allocate all or part of their endowment earnings for operations this year. Most agreed.
But some declined, including Myra Davies, an artist whose association with Banff Centre stretched from the 1970s to 2007, and who set up a memorial endowment in the 1980s to benefit writers from Western Canada. Davies – whose concerns about the Banff Centre’s direction long pre-date the current leadership – says she was offended by the request because the funding is meant to benefit artists, not keep the lights on or pay executives.
“I understand your need to seek solutions everywhere but I must say no to this strategy,” Davies replied by e-mail. “My suggestion. Give the endowment proceeds directly to artists to work at home. Cut some cheques. They need it.”
Davies is critical of how Banff Centre managed itself as COVID-19 hit. “When other arts organizations were trying to figure out a way of dealing with this and keeping going in some way, the Banff Centre was shutting down,” she said in an interview. “And worse – trying to turn its scholarship funding back into operations of this, as I call it, palace.”
Those at the top say they worked to contribute as well.
In April, senior leadership voluntarily reduced or donated a portion of their salary – Price at 20 per cent and the rest of the executive team at 15 per cent, as a way to contribute to Banff Centre’s critical operations during the period of retraction, Banff Centre says. (Price – whose total compensation in 2017-18 was $474,000 in salary and benefits – says her base salary, $300,000, has not increased since she was first hired.)
A salary donation would be eligible for a tax receipt. Banff Centre declined to disclose which executives selected this option.
In June, 284 employees were permanently laid off. Banff Centre says it made the layoffs permanent so people could seek employment elsewhere.
One laid-off employee launched a civil claim. Banff Centre says the claim is in the process of being withdrawn following a mutually agreed to, confidential settlement.
Most of the gallery staff were included in the June layoffs. And that’s when the criticism went public.
Dissatisfaction had been brewing for some time, but the events of 2020 brought it to a head.
In July, Thompson and another former gallery employee, Peta Rake, published an open letter that alleged visual arts have been devalued at Banff Centre, in favour of lucrative business conferences and business leadership programs.
The letter has attracted more than 900 signatures including curators, art professors and artists such as Rebecca Belmore, Ken Lum and Geoffrey Farmer.
“Through countless expensive rebranding exercises and successive poor leadership from the top of the institution, we are seeing an erosion of the function, reputation, and impact of the Centre on the international cultural stage. What does this shift in values mean for the Visual Arts at Banff Centre in a financially limited, post-COVID reality?” the open letter asked.
Along with a request for the establishment of a BIPOC-inclusive artist advisory group to guide decisions on hiring and direction, the letter mentioned a major restructuring in 2016 which saw the loss of 33 jobs and a reshuffling of program co-ordinators and program managers that, Thompson says, “was a poorly managed and chaotic transition that both impacted the morale and well-being of [Banff Centre] staff and also had a negative impact on program quality and artist experience.”
Thompson, who now works at Calgary’s Esker Foundation, makes it clear the letter was not meant to attack Price or Vice President, Arts and Leadership Howard Jang or anyone in the current executive – but to shine a light on these concerns.
“I love the Banff Centre. And that was the thing,” Thompson says. “It’s not coming from a negative place; it’s coming from a place of really deep love.”
In July, Price posted a response on the Banff Centre’s website. It explained they were dealing with unprecedented challenges and disruption. She warned that Banff Centre’s total budget is unlikely to recover fully within the next three or four years.
But she ended on a positive note: “I assure you that Banff Centre will survive this period of closure, and will be ready to welcome artists back to our campus in the future to continue the long and proud tradition of learning, creation, production, and presentation that has been a hallmark of this institution for almost 90 years.”
In 2019, Price was granted a four-year contract extension, which takes her to March 31, 2023, the year Banff enters its 90th anniversary season – at which point she plans to leave.
She has had a lot on her plate – not just righting the ship post-Melanson. Even before COVID-19, Alberta’s economic downturn had an impact on its energy sector-heavy corporate sponsors, private donors and provincial funding. Banff says the Alberta government cut its base operating grant by about 15 per cent – or $2.76-million over four years, beginning in 2018-19.
Despite the downturn in Alberta’s economy, 2019 had its philanthropic highlights, including one of the largest private gifts in its history – millions from former Banff Centre board chair Jenny Belzberg for a major upgrade to the Eric Harvie Theatre. In July, the annual signature fundraising event, the midsummer ball, raised more than $1.27-million – one of its highest results.
And the conference business remained strong – even if some purists are uncomfortable with that element of its operation.
“We know that there are some in the arts community who want to see Banff Centre as a place exclusively for artists and they will not be satisfied with anything else,” Price told The Globe and Mail. She says that criticism is naive and ignores Banff Centre’s history. “Critics of this model ignore that abandoning it would risk the future sustainability of the Centre, and the benefits it brings to artists and the world.”
But in interviews – both on and off the record – former employees expressed concerns about the direction they see the centre taking.
Russell Willis Taylor, interim vice-president for arts and leadership from 2016 to 2018, suggested it might be time for a fundamental change.
“In my view, it is baffling that the Board of Governors of the Banff Centre have once again destabilized the organization by approving the poorly executed dismissal of so many extremely talented employees who have been so loyal to the Centre. They also approved eliminating programs which are the raison d’être for the Centre – while keeping a large number of senior salaries to do so. Many of these programs could easily have gone online – the Centre had the facilities and the faculty to manage it had they chosen to do so,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Globe and Mail.
“This is twice in the past six years that the Board have approved this type of non-strategic purge – it’s a very curious way to advance the institution’s mission. Perhaps the provincial government should consider returning the Centre to the University of Alberta as a department – which is where it began almost 100 years ago – to protect its unique and internationally renowned role in Canadian education. Otherwise the Centre will soon just be a government-subsidized conference hotel with very limited facilities in the middle of an extraordinary national park which is itself sacred ground.”
During a lengthy interview over Zoom in early December, Price, Jang and Board of Governors chair Adam Waterous spoke about how they hope to bring stability back to Banff. They’ve been calling this a forced opportunity.
A new strategic plan is expected to be finalized in the early months of this year and in effect as of April. It will address how the Centre can be more resilient – even if the current crisis is the result of a once-in-a-century phenomenon.
“It’s a great time to start with a blank sheet of paper,” says Waterous, CEO of an oil and gas private equity firm who, in August, 2019, became the first Banff resident to chair the board.
“The pandemic has … given us an amazing opportunity to hit pause and rethink: So what do we actually want to do here? … Now that we’ve got to rebuild, what do we want to rebuild as?” Waterous says.
Rake suggests an artist-led grassroots rethink, with residency programs about Banff Centre’s future. “Let diverse youth and artists have a seat at the table.”
During that blissful late-summer window when the COVID-19 numbers were down, Banff Centre reopened the art gallery (it has since closed with the second wave) and celebrated the reopening of the theatre.
Some public programs went online, including National Indigenous Peoples’ Day in June, the Banff International String Quartet Festival in late summer and the Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival in the fall. The midsummer ball also went online, netting more than $830,000.
“If you had interviewed me two years ago, I would have said no way are we ever going to go online at [Banff] Centre. We’re about place, we’re about being here – and boy, did I ever eat my words really quickly,” Jang says.
On December 3, Banff Centre recalled 15 more employees and permanently laid off the remaining 20 employees. Of the 100 employees kept on temporary layoff in June, more than 60 have been recalled, including some short-term recalls over the summer. Only a handful of employees remain on temporary layoff.
Every staff action, Price points out, was approved by the board of governors.
Banff Centre is also down two vice-presidents: Rosemary Thompson, VP, marketing and development left in the summer for the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. CFO Bruce Byford left at the end of 2020.
With only a skeleton staff remaining, the Banff Centre is striving to bring back in-person programming this year.
But winter programs are all being offered online, starting with the Banff International Music Residency next week. Banff says its winter programming represents about 35 per cent of its usual offerings.
Nickel-Lane says Banff Centre has not been as nimble as its peers. “It’s been really hard for me to see the way that other postsecondaries, other arts institutions, galleries and so forth have found a way to continue doing what they do.”
Another former employee, Sam Welsh, who worked in public engagement, says there are specific things Banff Centre can do that would satisfy the concerns that have been widely expressed.
“They need more strategic and relevant ways of asking the artists what they need in this time,” she says. “They need to make sure that when they get those answers from the artists that the institution can pivot and adapt to meet those needs in a relevant and timely way.”
Price points out that when programs were moved online, faculty – often artists – were paid at the same rate as if they had been there in person.
And this week, Banff Centre announced a new one-time In-Situ Leighton Residency program, supporting five projects in a mix of artistic disciplines, each receiving $10,000 to work on a project that had been previously scheduled for Banff Centre this season.
As for bringing people back to the campus, Price says spring feels optimistic, though she has some hope for the summer and feels more certain about the fall.
“For us, this place being empty is just devastating,” Price says. “The fact we do some other activities in support of our mission and programming has not nor will it ever change our commitment to artists,” she adds. “That’s absolutely solid.”
Made in Banff
Countless exceptional artistic works have been created over the years at the Banff Centre. They include:
Ayum-ee-aawach Oomama-mowan: Speaking to Their Mother (1991)
At Banff Centre in 1991, Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore sketched plans for a giant megaphone that would serve as an artistic mouthpiece in response to the previous year’s Oka Crisis. She created a six-foot wide, seven-foot long conical sculpture that was carried through the woods and assembled in the Bow Valley. In 2007, the piece was purchased for Banff Centre’s permanent collection and sits in an alcove of the Kinnear Centre.
The harrowing 2015 masterpiece that The Guardian ranked as the best dance performance of the 21st century was co-created at the Banff Centre – where it also staged its avant-première – by Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite and playwright and actor Jonathon Young, who wrote and starred in the piece. “I naturally feel when I come here there’s a sense of possibility,” Pite told the Banff Centre.
Forest Walk (1991)
Janet Cardiff’s audio walks – made in collaboration with her husband George Bures Miller – are central to her artistic practice and her international art world reputation. Cardiff first came up with the idea during a Banff Centre residency in 1991, where she created Forest Walk, a site-specific audio tour then delivered via Walkman, wherein Cardiff’s voice plays tour guide and storyteller. Cardiff’s audio walks have since been commissioned by museums around the world and clearly influenced the work the couple created for the 2001 Venice Biennale and Documenta 13.
King Arthur’s Night
At the Banff Centre’s 2016 Playwrights’ Lab, future Siminovitch Prize winner Marcus Youssef collaborated with James Long (another future Siminovitch Prize winner) and Niall McNeil, a professional actor who has Down Syndrome, to create what would become King Arthur’s Night. Starring McNeil in the titular role, the piece was workshopped in 2017 by the group – including composer Veda Hille, the rest of the cast, support workers and a choir – ahead of its world premiere at Luminato. “[Banff Centre] got behind it in a very big way,” Youssef says.
The Marrow Thieves
Cherie Dimaline’s dystopian YA thriller won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2017 and the prestigious Kirkus Prize for Young Readers – and was still on bestsellers lists in 2020. The powerful novel – which is definitely not just for young adults – is now being adapted for television. In the book’s acknowledgments, the Métis author writes that she is indebted to the Banff Centre for its solitude and landscapes.
The winner of the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize was set mostly in Brampton, Ont., but written by Ian Williams partly in Banff, during a Leighton Residency. “I’m glad to have a few weeks in a cabin in the woods at the Banff Centre to work on my novel,” Williams wrote on his website. “Good food, good company, constant fear of wildlife, as in flash visions of hearing a knock on my door and discovering the wolf from the Three Little Pigs.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the Banff Centre conferences started in the 90s. Conference and hospitality was introduced to the centre in the 50s.
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