The outsiders who got in: Why sought-after arts positions in the country are going to non-Canadians
Complaints reflect a widespread perception in the field that Canada is too small a market to offer a good career ladder for future arts executives
When the Art Gallery of Ontario sought applicants for the post of chief curator last year, there were no senior candidates from the big art museums in Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver – the Canadian institutions that would be a comparable size to Toronto's AGO. There were, however, applications from New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In January, Julian Cox, a British-born expert on photography working as chief curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, moved over to the AGO, a place best known for its collection of classic Canadian art.
Cox's appointment follows a recent trend at leading Canadian arts institutions: Especially in Ontario, where the largest of these organizations are located, the top job often goes to an international candidate. Cox was hired by AGO director Stephan Jost, a Swiss-American who joined the museum in 2016. Meanwhile, the Royal Ontario Museum, Luminato, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and the Shaw Festival have all hired British or American leaders in the past 2 1/2 years. It's a pattern that has arts consultants worried.
"We don't seem to be able to hire from within: I see it as a lack of commitment to mentoring the next generation in the organization," said Nichole Anderson Bergeron, president of the arts-support organization Business for the Arts. "If the mandate of a cultural institution is to nurture and promote Canadian culture, why doesn't that extend to nurturing and promoting Canadian talent?"
Toronto-based international museum consultant Gail Lord agrees. "I am in favour of internationalism at the highest level," Lord says. "We are a multicultural society so we welcome people from around the world, [but] I don't know another country that has such a high proportion of non-citizens, not even landed immigrants, in these jobs."
Still, the international candidates come with impressive credentials and big ideas. How could curators from mid-sized or smaller Canadian art galleries who sent their résumés to the AGO compete with a leader from one of the most-visited visual-arts institutions in the United States?
"The reality is that Toronto is attracting global talent and people are competing for jobs globally in many sectors. That's a good thing," Jost said. "The question is, how do we have more Canadians forming global conversations here and elsewhere?"
When a Shaw Festival search committee looked for its new artistic director in 2014 and 2015, it found a British candidate had the most compelling vision for a theatre company in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Tim Carroll, who has been leading the festival since the 2017 season, stood out from the crowd by articulating a philosophy of intense audience engagement, Shaw board chair Peter Jewett said.
"Tim was substantially ahead in everybody's opinion: All 10 people [on the committee] ranked him first," Jewett said, adding they also interviewed four Canadians and one American for the job. "We felt we owed it to the Shaw and we owed it to Canada to bring someone like that in."
But if international candidates are highly accomplished, they may lack local knowledge and contacts, arts consultants warn.
"We have a culture that is exceedingly difficult to understand," Lord said, noting that it is only with the election of U.S. President Donald Trump that outsiders have recognized Canada has a different culture from the United States. The role of multiculturalism, bilingualism and continuing reconciliation with Indigenous people are all particularly Canadian issues that arts leaders are expected to address in their institutions. Also, large arts organizations are increasingly seen to have an obligation to rally, nurture and collaborate with smaller ones in their fields, which are perceived to be the real source of creativity, Anderson Bergeron said. That takes deep local contacts – as does successful fundraising.
Past experience suggests some migrant arts leaders will figure the differences out, adapt well and stay put – American Kathleen Bartels, director of the Vancouver Art Gallery since 2001, and German Alexander Neef, chief executive at the Canadian Opera Company (COC) since 2008, are good examples – while others will fail to bond with Canada and leave: Janet Carding, widely perceived as an awkward fit at the ROM, returned to Australia after less than five years.
What concerns observers a lot more, however, is what happens to all the people who didn't get the top job. When Jeanne LeSage, a Canadian arts consultant who specializes in human-resources issues, sent out a survey to performing-arts organizations across English Canada last year, she got 90 answers back – and an earful.
"The majority of the respondents do not feel that the sector is doing enough to develop, select and retain its future leaders, and that there are significant systemic issues," she said, noting that, of the respondents who answered that question, only 2 per cent felt the sector was successfully addressing the issue.
One major complaint she received was the arts version of every job seeker's catch-22: To get a job running a big arts organization, you need to have experience running a big organization. Respondents to the survey, which LeSage conducted for the National Theatre School in Montreal, noted that few arts organizations were large enough to have the second-in-command job that would groom someone to lead there or elsewhere. They also complained there was little mobility in the sector, with long-time leaders staying in their jobs for decades, and that a complacent older generation of both executives and board members was not doing enough succession planning.
These complaints reflect a widespread perception in the field that Canada is too small a market to offer a good career ladder for future arts executives. Both Lord and Anderson Bergeron note that Canada produces lots of energetic and entrepreneurial leaders who successfully run cultural organizations with budgets under $5-million almost single-handedly – but hiring committees usually decide it's too risky to engage them to run $30-million organizations.
Often, the solution for the career-minded arts leader is to go abroad: At the Shaw Festival, Jewett points out that Tim Jennings, the Canadian hired as executive director in 2015, had previously worked at theatres in Seattle and Minneapolis. He adds that the three of the four Canadians interviewed for the artistic-director job Carroll got are now in similar roles with mid-size theatres. He sees these as stepping stones to the big job at Shaw or the Stratford Festival.
For those younger arts leaders, a Canadian ladder may yet carry them to the top. For others, the problem, however, may not just be the lack of intermediate opportunities at home; it may also be one of attitude.
"You are good at running something small; you are good at running something mid-size, but when you come to [apply to] run something bigger, they want someone who has run something bigger: That's a pipeline problem," observes Russell Willis Taylor, an American arts consultant who is currently teaching arts leadership at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. "But to think, well, we shouldn't hire Canadians for these jobs, that's a cultural problem. It's a lack of confidence."
Anderson Bergeron believes that's precisely the case. She thinks boards – and in particular the head hunters they engage to seek out potential executives and artistic directors – discount Canadians in the process. "It's an insecurity: We feel we have to hire from abroad," she said. "How do we change that perception?"
The answer across the country is mentorships and training. Business for the Arts will launch a program pairing leaders of small to mid-sized organizations with 20 established executives in the field, including Neef at the COC, Michele Maheux at the Toronto International Film Festival, Anthony Sargent of Luminato, Barry Hughson of the National Ballet of Canada, Marah Braye of Harbourfront Centre and Gideon Arthurs of the National Theatre School (NTS), who himself moved to that job from a smaller organization, Toronto's Tarragon Theatre.
Meanwhile, the Banff Centre and NTS are collaborating on a new professional training program in which 19 arts leaders are currently undergoing intensive instruction on defining their purpose, honing their business skills, building their networks and ensuring their organizations have the biggest social impact.
The first cohort of leaders from small- and mid-sized arts organizations – such as Vancouver's Pacific Theatre, the Regina Folk Festival and the Southern Alberta Art Gallery – have been learning from Taylor, former CEO of the National Arts Strategies in the United States, where she had created a similar program.
She joined Banff in 2016, first as a consultant and then as interim VP of arts and leadership after she spoke out on the need to groom new leaders at the Canadian Arts Summit, and she agrees there was something counterintuitive about signing her up for the job. "Is there a rich irony in having an American do this? Yes. But I've done it before, I had the skills; it was quicker. When you are an outsider you see all the good things you don't see if you are in the middle of it. I am very pro-Canadian."
Besides, Taylor only signed on to be VP of arts and leadership at Banff on a temporary basis. She recently helped replace herself with a permanent candidate, long-time Vancouver arts administrator and teacher Howard Jang, who took up the job last month. Of course, he's Canadian.