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“I picked a hell of a year for my first festival,” says imagineNATIVE executive director Naomi Johnson, who was upped from her associate director role with the world’s largest Indigenous film and media arts event last summer, in the middle of an international pandemic.

“Running a performing arts centre is touch and go at the best of times,” says Alex Sarian, who took over as president and chief executive officer of the Calgary Arts Commons two months into the COVID-caused lockdown. “But I was looking at $3-million in lost ticket sales before I even got started.”

Read more: COVID-19 decimated the arts in Canada, and the worst may be yet to come

One year into the COVID-19 crisis, The Globe and Mail spoke to a number of new leaders of non-profit arts organizations in Canada about the challenges of operating with skeleton staffs and slashed revenues. What we heard were concerns of sustainability, sadness over job cuts and praise for the financial rescue from governments, alongside a heightened sense of purpose in extremely trying times.

Sasha Suda

Appointed as the National Gallery of Canada’s director and chief executive officer in February, 2019.

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"We’ve been able to stay open just over six months of the pandemic period to date," Sasha Suda says of the National Gallery of Canada.Justin Tang/The Globe and Mail

The financial effect of the pandemic has been massive. We lost all our earned revenue overnight when we had to shut our doors last March. We are charting somewhere between $8-million and $9-million of lost revenue over our budget year. Those are funds that typically would support some of the operating expenses, outside of staffing. There are simply things we can’t do anymore.

We’ve been able to stay open just over six months of the pandemic period to date. In that time we’ve been able to welcome about 30 per cent of our usual audience. Every week we’re open it costs us about $30,000. We’re not making money by opening our doors right now. But we feel very confident we’re providing an essential service to the immediate community here, as far as providing a safe place to have a mental health break or an excursion that isn’t in your backyard.

The government has been extremely generous to us. We were not eligible for the wage subsidy. The relief funding that was given to national museums was a stand-in for the wage subsidy. It’s covered about half of our lost revenues.

Stéphane Aquin

Took over as director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in November, 2020.

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"Considering the situation, we’re faring okay," says Stéphane Aquin of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.Jean-François Brière/Handout

When I came in, the museum was closed. I wasn’t there when the furloughing of some staff happened, but it’s the hardest thing … to go through.

We had to endure serious losses in ticket sales, boutique revenue and restaurant revenue. We’re funded by the government at a level of 60 per cent approximately. We’re currently allowing 135 people per hour for the Riopelle: The Call of Northern Landscapes and Indigenous Cultures exhibition. Considering the situation, we’re faring okay.

Tom Wright

Ascended from Vancouver Opera’s interim general director to permanent duties on Nov. 1, 2019.

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"By early March, it hit us that this was not something we’d be waiting out," says Tom Wright of Vancouver Opera.Handout

We closed The Barber of Seville in mid-February, 2020. It was artistically and critically well received, and we surpassed our ticket sales target by $100,000. We were taking that momentum into selling tickets for our final production of the season, which was the West Coast premiere of Another Brick in the Wall: The Opera.

I noticed a drop in ticket sales at the end of February. In early March I put together scenarios that I presented to the board. If we cancelled Another Brick in the Wall before rehearsals began, it would cost us a certain amount of money. If we waited two weeks after that, it would cost us more; if we waited a month, more again. It was a pretty clear decision that we needed to cancel, or at least postpone the entire production immediately. By early March, it hit us that this was not something we’d be waiting out.

Matthew Loden

Chief executive officer of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, where star Spanish conductor Gustavo Gimeno was supposed to start his first season as TSO’s music director in September, 2020.

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"When everything was kneecapped, we realized we couldn’t pull off the season," the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's Matthew Loden says.Handout

We spent years planning Gustavo’s first season. As an artistic statement, what we had programmed was all about him. It was all about his influence on people and the next generation of composers we were supporting and presenting a contrast of old art and new art. All of our trend lines were doing incredibly well from a fundraising and ticket sale standpoint.

Then when everything was kneecapped, we realized we couldn’t pull off the season. Still, he was supposed to be on the podium conducting last month with 50 members of the orchestra on the stage, doing two different Beethoven programs that also included some wonderful Indigenous works. But because the recent shutdown was extended, that was delayed.

Alex Sarian

Previously a senior executive at New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; took over as president and chief executive officer of the multi-venue Calgary Arts Commons in May, 2020.

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"We’ve used the past year as an opportunity to get our house in order," Alex Sarian says of Calgary Arts Commons.Handout

I was in a meeting with the Mayor of Calgary when he had to excuse himself to deliver a press conference about the city shutting down. I was acutely aware what had happened in New York, and it was good to see Calgary clamping down in a way New York hadn’t early on.

My platform during the recruiting process for the position in Calgary was my belief that if a performing arts centre is going to be successful, it needs to figure out its commitment to social impact and its responsibility to civic engagement. I look at libraries over the last 10 to 15 years as an example of institutions that have evolved their core business to be more relevant and accessible.

With our doors closed, we’ve had the opportunity to develop a new strategic plan and put some of the wheels in motion. We’ve probably been able to get more done in 10 months than I would have been able to get done in three years had I just walked into business as usual. We’ve used the past year as an opportunity to get our house in order.

Anthony Kiendl

Took over as Vancouver Art Gallery chief executive officer and director last August.

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"There are challenges, but things are going in the right direction," says Anthony Kiendl of the Vancouver Art Gallery.CARLOS TAYLHARDAT/Handout

I’m spending a lot of time on staff communications and the institutional culture. We just created our first elder-in-residence program and we’ve engaged a Squamish elder at the gallery. We just hired artist Carmen Papalia as a consultant on accessibility. We have an idea committee on inclusivity and diversity. There are challenges, but things are going in the right direction.

Naomi Johnson

Became executive director of Toronto’s annual imagineNATIVE film festival in June, and pivoted from a live event to a digital one.

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"The last year gave us time and space to explore digital possibilities," says Naomi Johnson of imagineNATIVE film festival.Handout

It’s too simplistic to say that it’s cheaper to run an online festival. There’s a lot at play. Yes, you’re not paying for flights or accommodations to bring people in, and per diems. Those things go to zero. But we increased our artist fees. We increased our award prizes. And we had to put a lot of money into hiring staff with technical skills who could actually get us online.

But the last year gave us time and space to explore digital possibilities. I believe a lot of arts organizations have always wanted to do this, but literally just never had the time. If one thing is clear, this digital thing is here to stay.

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Editor’s note: (March 15) An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated how much it costs the National Gallery of Canada to stay open. This version has been updated.

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