On a sparkling Rocky Mountain Saturday night here this summer, the West's elite rode into town for a ball. Their destination: the Banff Centre, a secluded spot, but one that's clearly not isolated from the halls of power. Some 350 people made that trip in July for the soiree. For one night, the politically powerful, corporate leaders and cultural luminaries breathed the same mountain air and rubbed tuxedo- and ball-gown-adorned shoulders. Among the guests: Husky Energy CEO Asim Ghosh, as well as top executives from Talisman, RBC and a host of other energy and financial corporations; Banff Centre board members from as far away as Toronto; no fewer than four Alberta cabinet ministers; the Lieutenant-Governor; and the Premier herself.
"To be able to have an institution like this in our own province is something that we all need to be proud of, not only as Albertans but I would say also as Canadians," Alberta Premier Alison Redford said in a speech that night.
They were there to celebrate the Banff Centre, but also to toast its new president, Jeff Melanson: a prairie boy who came to Alberta by way of Toronto, eschewing lucrative international offers to take on the position here.
Melanson dazzled that weekend, making a case for the centre – publicly and in countless private conversations – and even took a turn at the microphone to croon Fly Me to the Moon, wrapping this moneyed crowd of power brokers around his finger and cementing the notion that he is a leader capable of doing big things for Alberta.
The event netted $870,000 – a record for the ball and an impressive boost for Melanson's vision of transforming the almost 80-year-old centre into a nimble 21st-century arts and media powerhouse, both taking advantage of and further solidifying the new power in the west: politically, economically and, yes, culturally.
This is a time, Melanson agrees, when if you've got big plans like his, it helps to be in a place like Alberta – where there's money.
"Very much, so," he says, in addition to "the pioneering spirit out here and wanting to take risks and do edgy things. I think people are tremendously proud of Alberta and tremendously proud of the Banff Centre and what we can do. And I think the perspective that the political leadership brings, which is global, enables us to have conversations that are a bit more aspirational and visionary than might otherwise be the case."
If power and money are shifting west – to the political and ideological home of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the economic engine that's currently driving the country – nobody is better positioned to harness that for the cultural good than Melanson: a savvy arts administrator armed with an MBA and a canny feel for both his core cultural constituency and the political right – call him the Tory whisperer.
At ease with Alberta's governing Conservatives and its oil-rich philanthropists he calls the "super-donors," and so charismatic one cultural colleague describes him as "Obama-esque," Melanson even managed to broker a Margaret Atwood-Doug Ford reconciliation of sorts at the height of Librarygate in Toronto. People often refer to his height – he's 6-foot-6 – but it's a different kind of stature that makes people look twice – and listen.
Reimagining the profile of Banff
It's hard not to be intoxicated by the Banff Centre. Nestled on the side of a mountain, the setting is idyllic and its raison d'être – to inspire creativity – has created a sort of artistic utopia where someone will make your meals and your bed so you can focus solely on making art in a setting that encourages cultural cross-pollination.
The list of cultural luminaries who have passed through its (metaphorical) gates and the amount of art created in this place is staggering: Mavis Gallant has written here; Oscar Peterson helped establish the jazz-education program; artists Janet Cardiff and Brian Jungen are among those who were inspired in this setting to create what would become their signatures: in their case, audio walks and Air Jordan masks, respectively.
Nine months into his tenure as president, Melanson is pushing forward with aggressive changes aimed at creating a more national and international profile not just for the centre, but for the work that artists create here.
Melanson has an application into the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to take over the local radio station, plans for a major Web presence (think Ted Talks), and perhaps most significantly, he wants the centre to stop being a presenting institution and focus solely on creating works that will then be accessible through the technological channels he is cultivating. Down the road in his empire-building, there are plans for new cultural facilities to replace the aging infrastructure.
To make it happen, Melanson is looking at a capital campaign that will have to raise hundreds of millions of dollars (although he's not offering a dollar figure at this point).
"The Banff Centre was founded in 1933 in the midst of the Depression," Melanson said in his airy office on Tuesday, as a light early snow fell outside. "So for anybody who says, 'The economy isn't great, Jeff; be more careful with your aspirations,' no, that's not actually true."
A mountain of money
Tory whisperer or not, Melanson has his work cut out for him.
The Banff Centre, with an annual operating budget of about $58-million, receives just under $21-million in government operating grants, most of that from the province.
In Ottawa, the funding climate is such that the arts community cheered the fact that there were no cuts in Canada Council funding in the last federal budget. (Heritage Minister James Moore was not available for an interview about the Banff Centre.)
As for private-sector donations, Alberta may be booming, but the global economy remains shaky. Further, as a result of that, the centre has seen a substantial decline in its conference-centre revenues.
Phase One of the centre's campus renewal program – which included the sparkling new Kinnear Centre for Creativity & Innovation and the 1,600-seat outdoor Shaw Amphitheatre – was realized at a cost of $100-million. This predated Melanson's arrival; now he has a much longer list of cultural facilities in his sights that need replacing or refurbishing.
"He just has so many dreams. I think working with us as the board, he's going to have to kind of prioritize those dreams along with us," says board chair Brenda Mackie, who was on the search committee that hired Melanson – and is clearly a fan. "And you have to think also about what resonates with your donors and what resonates with government funders. What do we need to do to get us where we need to be?"
Mackie adds that the board is eager to see Melanson, with his profile and connections, secure more philanthropic support nationally. But, she adds, "Before you can ask for the money from people outside of Alberta, you have to make people aware of what we are."
Melanson himself places a lot of faith in the Redford government, which provides the centre with its base operating grant.
"The conversation that Alison Redford is leading ... is around sort of a bigger vision for what Alberta can be. So certainly Alberta is a strong economic engine for Canada, but what more can it be? And how does the economy diversify? How does the society diversify?" says Melanson, adding he's had meaningful conversations with a number of cabinet ministers about these issues. "It's not sometimes the typical argument that the arts sector faces in terms of trying to convince politicians that we're a worthwhile investment. The politicians are already there; it's just a question of what they should invest in, and how – which is pretty exciting to be at that stage of the conversation rather than trying to have to push the rock up the hill for another couple years."
From Mozart to an MBA
Born in Winnipeg, Melanson (emphasis on the second syllable) played football in high school (left guard), trained as an opera singer and completed his MBA at Wilfrid Laurier University. In Toronto, he was dean at the Royal Conservatory of Music Community School and then executive director and co-CEO of the National Ballet School. He took over the latter under terrible conditions – he recalls hearing the words "insolvency" and "bankruptcy" at his first finance meeting – but led the institution through a period of tremendous growth. Annual revenues went from $10-million in 2006 when he joined the organization to $22-million in 2011, the year he left.
In his last year in Toronto, he took on another challenge. He was appointed special adviser on arts and culture to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford shortly after Ford's election. Melanson came to the administration's attention as a result of a profile in Canadian Business magazine (which had worried some colleagues; in the piece, Melanson suggested that artists look beyond government for funding). The appointment was a surprise to many in the cultural community – and some still feel it was a public-relations exercise that Melanson was politically naive to accept – but Melanson disagrees and says he has no regrets in taking the job.
"Knowing the uncertainty that was around the future of arts funding at that point and the city's economic circumstances, it didn't seem like there was really a choice for me," Melanson says. "I was, like, okay for me as a person individually, I could opt out of this and it would be a lot easier – and it would have been a lot easier. 'Cause I don't think I personally gained a whole lot in that year honestly and it took a toll in terms of time and physically and so on. But it just seemed there was a greater good in terms of working with him in some way."
Melanson was able to exit the position gracefully when last year he beat out a handful of other shortlisted candidates and was offered the position of Banff Centre president. He was 37.
There is a tendency in the province to take pride in luring Melanson from Toronto, and his decision to choose Banff over places like New York. "To attract somebody of that talent and calibre out to Alberta is, I think, a terrific endorsement," said Derek Neldner, who himself moved to Calgary from Toronto six years ago to take on the position of managing director and regional head, Alberta, for RBC Capital Markets.
RBC has given the Banff Centre more than $2-million over the last two decades, and that's how Neldner learned about the Centre. He'd never heard of it, despite having grown up in Edmonton.
The halo effect
Beyond Calgary's boardrooms, there is palpable excitement in the city's rehearsal halls. Arts administrators who labour to get out the message that there's more to the city's culture than the Stampede are anxious to welcome another of their own to the campaign. Melanson's arrival is perceived not just as a vote of confidence in Alberta's cultural scene, but one that could produce a bit of a halo effect down the highway in Calgary and also provide new opportunities for collaboration.
"I hope he knocks on every door in Calgary," says Dennis Garnhum, who moved here from New York seven years ago to become artistic director of Theatre Calgary.
"A guy like that doesn't drop into Banff because he needs a job. A guy like that's going to come and revolutionize the place," says Garnhum. "I put my money on it that it's going to become a different place because of Jeff."
Garnhum will host a belated welcome dinner party for Melanson in early October. Among those on the guest list: Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maître, who moved to Calgary from Montreal, and the ballet's executive director Martin Bragg, who moved here from Toronto.
"It goes back to this Western thing," says Garnhum, a booster of Calgary's cultural scene. "The classic joke: I guess Alberta might not be so bad if Jeff Melanson wants to come here."
Meanwhile, back in Toronto
Back in the centre of Canada's cultural universe, Melanson's departure left a hole at Toronto City Hall; he was never officially replaced, although cultural co-conspirator Robert Foster, a self-described Red Tory who worked with Melanson on the creative city initiative, says he's tried to continue that work, even without the appointment. Foster, who threw a going-away party at his Forest Hill home for Melanson last year, describes his departure in dramatic terms. "It's a loss for Toronto, absolutely. This is war. It's war to build the city that attracts bright young talent."
Melanson never made it to the party – he had to cancel at the last minute due to a case of food poisoning – but the who's who of the arts and culture community turned out, and in what could be the ultimate tribute to Melanson's gift for bringing artists and the political right together, both Atwood and councillor Doug Ford turned up – neither aware that the other would be there. This was at the height of their very public spat over public libraries. "It was a little tense for a moment or two," says Foster. How did things turn out? Ford "assured Margaret that no library would close and then they had their photo taken together."
In Banff, where the political right and culture have to collide – it's the only way – Melanson is energized by the innovation that surrounds him: the constant flow of artists coming to Banff to make art or, at the very least, talk about it.
"People keep coming out from Toronto and saying, 'Are you bored yet? When are you coming back?' " says Melanson, smiling.
THE CHANGE AGENDA
At the top of Melanson's agenda for change at the Banff Centre is a significant philosophical shift: to move the institution away from being a presenter and toward being an incubator.
"We are actively, aggressively getting out of being a presenter at all, and focusing solely on world premieres – developing content here," Melanson says. "If artists are not developing work [here], mentoring other artists, or recording here, then we're not going to be that interested in booking them."
Other components of the plan include:
To dramatically increase access to the work created here, taking control of Banff's local radio station and rebranding it as Banff Centre Radio, further developing the Web platform launched this summer as Banff Centre Live so when fully realized it will be TED-esque in terms of online content management and launching an Internet protocol television platform for the Centre (12 months away).
Installing a new managing editor for the Banff Centre Press (not yet hired), and other hires, including the crucial position of vice-president, arts.
Increasing spending on the arts disciplines by adding $5-million to $10-million annually.
Enhancing the centre's leadership training in four areas, indigenous leadership, creativity and entrepreneurship, social enterprise and arts management.
Building a new theatre, art gallery, art incubation space, media centre, music and sound building, and artist residence and studios.