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The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
The Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

How to rise up the Canadian arts ranks? Move abroad Add to ...

Theatre producer and presenter Kris Nelson used to keep a mental list of jobs that were big enough or exciting enough he’d leave Canada to take them. A native of Saskatoon, he had built his career on Vancouver’s dynamic indie theatre scene and then moved it to Montreal, where he was operating his own management and production agency. But he dreamed of running a festival and didn’t think he’d have that opportunity any time soon in Canada. So when the top job came open at Dublin’s Fringe Festival in 2013, he jumped.

Next month, he launches his third edition of the high-profile Irish event – it’s one of the few curated Fringe festivals in the world – where he contributes a strong background in physical theatre to an Irish culture rooted in text. And where he also remembers never to say, “Here’s what we do in Canada.”

“It’s about listening to the artists, the audience and my colleagues in order to make it not feel like a fiction, an assembly of ideas not connected to the scene [because] I’m a blow-in,” he says.

Fact is, on the international cultural scene, Canadian blow-ins are rare. When I wrote last week about the worrying trend in Canadian arts to always give the top jobs to foreigners – there have been five examples in 15 months, including the leaders of the Royal Ontario Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Shaw Festival – the community howled in agreement. I had clearly struck a nerve with Canadian directors, curators and arts administrators who feel they face limited opportunities for advancement at home.

But the labour market for artistic directors and culture-sector CEOs is global, and some asked if Canada was not sending abroad as many leaders as it imports.

Wasn’t Matthew Teitelbaum, formerly of the AGO, now running Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts? Did the mighty Metropolitan Opera of New York not just name Montreal’s Yannick Nézet-Séguin as its next music director?

There are, of course, no statistics, but my hunch that these high-profile cases are exceptions was certainly confirmed when I sent out a call for examples. Nelson’s name was one of very few that came up.

What’s more common is for potential arts leaders to do a stint abroad in a mid-level job in mid-career in hopes it will advance them up the ladder at home.

But why is it so hard to move up that ladder? For that was the strongest conclusion I reached from the messages I received: A lot of potential Canadian arts leaders are deeply frustrated as they watch boards recruiting international candidates for positions they feel are simply closed to locals.

These are government-funded institutions that entertain, enlighten and inform us; their leadership is a matter of public interest and cultural health, so it’s worth figuring out what’s going on.

Are boards hiring foreigners because there is a shortage of strong local candidates? Or are they are hiring foreigners because they are discriminating in favour of them? The answer, it seems, is a bit of both.

Many people I spoke to pointed out that Canada has a large number of small arts organizations and a few large ones, but it lacks the middle institutions – something about the size of Toronto’s Tafelmusik orchestra or Montreal’s McCord Museum – where ambitious leaders can cut their teeth. (That might be why Canadians go abroad mid-career.) Boards looking for someone to run an organization with a budget that’s more than $30-million can’t find many Canadians who have experience running something with a budget of $10-million.

Also, there are few places large enough to have a management structure that includes an actual second-in-command position that would nurture the next potential leader. But Canadian expats add that other cultures are much better at mentoring up and comers.

“I looked around at other countries and saw they were trusting people in their 30s to run things,” Nelson says of his decision to leave Canada for Ireland.

So the lack of ready candidates is being exacerbated by various prejudices. Arts boards filled with directors who bring business rather than cultural expertise to the table want international searches to bring them “the best” with little sense of the local artistic community, the practical realities of the job or actual reputations of candidates in the sector.

Of course, anyone can grumble privately about any hire, especially if they didn’t get the job – which is part of the reason this is a difficult discussion to initiate publicly and why I am not naming missed candidates here.

But when a whole community can, for any big job competition, list prominent Canadian professionals who were never interviewed, you know that either the board or the executive recruitment agency was not doing its job.

There are only handful of headhunters in Canada who specialize in the arts, and that’s also a problem: Boards sometimes draw on their corporate contacts to bring in recruiters without much knowledge of the cultural sector.

Daniel Weinzweig of Searchlight Recruitment is one of the few who does concentrate on the arts and sometimes tries to lure expat Canadian administrators back home; his finds include Beth Janson, a 41-year-old who recently left the United States to lead the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television.

Weinzweig says it is estimated that a third of North American cultural executives are going to retire in the next three years. Canadian arts institutions need better succession planning now.

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