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Jeff Melanson and Eleanor McCain in New York May 1, 2014. (Eric Thayer/Eric Thayer)
Jeff Melanson and Eleanor McCain in New York May 1, 2014. (Eric Thayer/Eric Thayer)

Meet Jeff Melanson, Canada's cultural turnaround man Add to ...

The board was onside with Melanson’s plan, and he began to go out and sell it with persuasive confidence to potential donors and funders.

But there was a personal situation brewing at home. Since accepting the job, Melanson had split from his wife. Their children – now 11, 13 and 15 – had lived with him in Banff for many months, but after the divorce was finalized they returned to Toronto to live with their mother. It was becoming too difficult for Melanson to be away from them. Another factor was his engagement, after an April 4 concert, to McCain, who lives in Toronto. He made the decision to move back east.

Surprise – and disappointment

Melanson broke the news to board chair Brenda Mackie during the second week of April, over dinner.

“I don’t know whether I turned white or red, but I was surprised,” said Mackie from Calgary, where she lives.

On April 10, he gave the board his resignation at an afternoon meeting. Three hours later at a town hall, he addressed the staff inside the Centre’s Eric Harvie Theatre, choking up at one point. “It’s very hard for me,” he said in our interview. “The job was such a perfect alignment with everything I want to see happen in the world.”

In the boardroom and in that theatre, there was shock.

“I was very surprised and disappointed,” says Shlesinger, who was contacted with the news back in Toronto, where he lives. “I think it’s a loss for the Banff Centre. I loved working with him. He’s smart, he’s focused, he’s got a strategy that we all as a board and the institution as a whole have rallied behind.”

It will be a long good-bye – Melanson will stay on in the position until Sept. 15. But transitions at the top are tricky and require a great deal of lead-up; Melanson’s own contract stipulates 12 months’ notice.

Is he leaving the Centre in the lurch? That’s not the term Shlesinger uses, but he does say this: “It’s kind of a step back. You lose organizational momentum, you lose energy, you lose time. You think you’ve put [the selection of a new president and the change that comes with it] behind you – for five years at least and probably 10. I feel let down that we have to go through this again.”

The Centre, which receives a third of its funding from taxpayers, did make an investment in Melanson – he was moved out to Banff with his family. And tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of renovations were undertaken to his residence (although work on the house was needed). And there is unfinished business, to be sure, in his barely in-progress big-vision plan.

Melanson also leaves behind another unresolved issue: the termination last year of a director at the Centre who had reported directly to him, and with whom he had had a brief relationship; she is still seeking severance. (The woman declined to speak with The Globe and Mail, and neither Melanson nor Mackie would comment when asked about this.)

Disappointed over his decision to leave, the board nonetheless needed to look forward. In a meeting the day after Melanson’s announcement, they began discussing what comes next, for the position and the strategic plan. “We strongly feel we don’t want to lose momentum.… We’ll use Jeff in the next months that he’s here to help us work through that as much as he can,” said Mackie, who will request an extension to her term on the board, scheduled to end in December, so she can assist with the transition. “It’s tough [but] we’ll get through it. The Banff Centre has never been and can never be about one person.”

Melanson points to the progress he has made. He has secured $73-million in supplemental funding since his arrival, and he is aiming to break $100-million before he leaves. The Centre has shortlisted three firms – Toronto-based KPMB Architects, Vancouver-based Bing Thom Architects and the Danish firm Bjarke Ingels – to carry out planning and concept development for the campus renewal, including in downtown Banff. The Centre is revitalizing its publishing division, has acquired radio frequencies and put a radio team in place; and a new director of Visual/Digital Arts has recently arrived from Australia. Melanson says he feels he’s made great progress.

Still, if his departure doesn’t put his overarching plan in jeopardy, it’s certain at the very least to be a scheduling setback. An announcement on an interim president is expected shortly, and, for the permanent position, Mackie says the board will be looking for a “steadying influence.… We don’t want somebody that needs to come in and change things around.”

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