Christopher Deacon is president and CEO of the National Arts Centre.
The performing arts are facing two worldwide, seismic shifts. COVID-19 has forced us to find new ways of doing business so we can reopen safely for artists, audiences and our staff. At the same time, we find ourselves centre stage in the activism for racial and social justice.
Canada is awakening to long-ignored realities – the systemic racism of our institutions, misogyny, homophobia, social injustice and the need for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. How have we, as arts leaders, artists, and arts companies, played a major role in excluding voices and stories?
These times call for something more profound and far-reaching than a reboot. What’s called for is nothing short of a renaissance – a burst of creativity, inspiration and industry – on our stages and inside our arts institutions.
In many cases that starts with new artistic leadership, with those who choose the art on our stages. New voices, with new perspectives, should shape this renaissance. Naturally, the magic onstage is where this transformation starts. We must celebrate conductors, choreographers, directors, writers and performers who are women, Indigenous, Black or people of colour. Top billing and major funding should go to commission, premiere, champion and tour new work by these artists.
On the flip side, we must reinvent the business of the arts. For many arts organizations, subscribers are a mainstay of our audiences and provide a predictable revenue stream. But the subscription model focuses on retention and rewards loyalty, while tending to repel potential new customers. Subscription packages are complex, expensive and require a commitment of time and money far in advance. We need smart new leaders to show us better ways to both keep our loyal friends, and make many more.
We can clear a path for those smart new leaders by providing better on-the-job professional development opportunities. The best way to refine skills is in the workplace, and that applies equally to stage managers, fundraisers and cellists. Young doctors hone their practice at teaching hospitals; our arts institutions can more deeply embrace a role as teaching companies. Every show should be made by those who do, and some who are learning to do.
Those of us on the inside have become blind to the barriers we defend: doors that are too narrow, prices that are too high, stairwells that are too dark, or shows that are too long. None of these obstacles should be precious. It matters not whether we cling to them out of ignorance or principle: It’s time to change. Truly engaging with our communities means breaking down the walls of our institutions, delivering dividends that might surprise us. The widely decried weakening of attendance, for example, may not prove to be a marketing problem at all, but an engagement problem.
In the face of these major challenges national institutions must show leadership by reimagining a response to the question: What can we do to help the birth of a changed performing arts ecosystem in Canada?
We can invest in more ambitious new work by artists from across the country. We can shine more light on the voices and stories of Indigenous artists and, along the way, help our institutions decolonize. We can increasingly focus on the voices and stories of women, along with members of the gender diverse, LGBTQ+, IBPoC, D/deaf, disabled and mad artist communities. More than ever, audiences are seeking those stories, and the joy, transformation and healing that they can bring.
Last season an experience offered me a lesson. The Indigenous Theatre team at the National Arts Centre created an “All My Relations” $15 ticket for anyone who was Indigenous, an idea that would not have occurred to me. At the shows, a significant new segment of the audience laughed at jokes I didn’t get. That’s when I saw the impact of more diverse voices in management.
I read recently of the devastation caused by forest fires and the scars they sear into vast ecosystems. But I was also inspired by what sometimes follows. If conditions are right, a huge generative force can bring forth something spectacular – a multitude of new flowers or “super bloom.” Let’s work together to foster those conditions and give rise to a new flourishing of the performing arts in Canada.
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