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National Arts Centre president reflects on theatre’s role in the national conversation

NAC president Peter Herrndorf poses for a portrait at the newly renovated section of National Art Centre in Ottawa on Tuesday.

Dave Chan/Dave Chan

If all goes according to plan, by the fall of 2019, some theatregoers attending the National Arts Centre in Ottawa are going to be upset by what they see onstage. That's when the NAC launches its Indigenous Theatre program, a long-awaited effort to give Indigenous stories a permanent national platform. Given the state of relations between Canada's native people and the dominant culture, some of the work could be politically sensitive.

"I would hope so," says Peter Herrndorf, chief executive officer and president of the NAC. It is Family Day, and Herrndorf is lunching at Toronto's Museum Tavern, across the street from one of his favourite music venues, Koerner Hall, and around the corner from the apartment where he spends weekends with his wife, Eva Czigler. He is dressed in a sweater and slacks: so casual that he isn't even wearing his Order of Canada pin.

"Theatre is supposed to be provocative. And you would hope that a theatre that is situated in the national capital would, in fact, be very important to the kind of political, social, philosophical conversation. That the conversation is not just in the House of Commons, it's also on the stages of the National Arts Centre."

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In nearly 19 years at the helm of the NAC, which will conclude when he leaves office in June, Herrndorf, 77, has framed the place as "a kind of demilitarized zone. In a highly partisan political Ottawa, it's one of the places where people of every political stripe come together. They see things, they hear things, there's extraordinary storytelling, the most difficult, painful choices are explored on stage."

It is a mark of Herrndorf's smooth stewardship that, while federal governments have come and gone during his term, including some with a notoriously conservative view of the role of art and a corresponding desire to cut funds for culture, the NAC has not just floated through unscathed, but flourished. It has just completed a $110.5-million renovation, a revelatory rebuild that opened up its brutalist headquarters to Confederation Square, and it is in the midst of a $114.9-million renewal of its existing performances spaces.

On Thursday, the NAC's new Canada Room event space will debut with a fundraising dinner in honour of Herrndorf, at which 400 artists, politicos and philanthropists will mingle. Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, is scheduled to sing an honour song for Herrndorf.

The dinner will raise funds, perhaps as much as $1-million, in support of Indigenous Theatre. Herrndorf says that program, which was about 10 years in development, is his most proud achievement.

He has many to choose from, starting with simply helping the NAC regain its equilibrium: When Herrndorf took the job in 1999, the place had been through six directors-general – he changed the title to the more corporate CEO – in 10 years, and was running an unexpected deficit. Over the decades, he made the NAC a genuinely national institution, forming strong ties with communities and groups across the country. And while it hasn't been an entirely upward arc – he oversaw budget cuts and layoffs in 2009 – he is a universally respected figure in the non-profit arts sector.

Lately, he has been beating the drum for Canada to invest in the professional development of arts managers.

He notes that, when he attended Harvard Business School (he graduated in 1970), about 30 per cent of the classmates in his section of 100 students were active military officers: majors or colonels. The American military "invested heavily, for years, in terms of their leadership skills, their intellectual capacity. So, a number of these American generals ended up with PhDs," he recalls. "They really went to great efforts to enhance the quality of leadership. My great dream in this country would be that Canada would do the same."

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He believes the training should include artists who are put into management positions. "Being an artistic director is very different than being a writer, a choreographer, or a director," he explains. "Suddenly, you've got responsibility – for 10, 50, 100 – and most people freak. You know, they go, 'Holy Christ! Now what?'"

The lack of investment in professional leadership has become a hot topic recently as the top jobs at a number of major institutions have gone to non-Canadians. "We've got extraordinary artistic talent in the country. The question is whether in fact we've prepared them step by step to assume these kinds of roles. Can we do that? Absolutely."

As for the NAC, Herrndorf says he has regularly compiled a running list of about 25 potential candidates who could replace him: All of them are Canadian, and need to be, he says. "This is Canada's national arts centre, and if that person doesn't have a kind of institutional memory about the cultural fabric of this country, you've got a problem."

True, Herrndorf himself was born outside of this country, in Amsterdam. But the Second World War was raging, and the Dutch government wasn't functioning enough to even grant him citizenship. In 1947, he and his family moved to Winnipeg, where he became a Canadian: The only citizenship he has ever held.

He was a grateful immigrant, and, like many others in the arts and broadcasting, he dedicated himself to helping build up his new country. After working in news and current affairs at CBC, where he helped develop The National and The Journal, he became publisher of Toronto Life magazine, then chairman and CEO of TVOntario, where he deftly defended the educational broadcaster against calls for its privatization.

"Whether it's [the late Stratford Festival artistic director] John Hirsch, [ex-CBC executive] Mark Starowicz, Rosalie Abella, most of us who were taken in by this country, embraced by this country, became even more passionate – about the story that this country represented, the values – than sometimes homegrown people were."

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When Herrndorf leaves the NAC, he will not be retiring, but, rather, replacing one job with three: He will become the new chair of Luminato – he believes the festival has the potential to become a sort of TIFF of the performing arts, bringing the best of the world to Toronto, and vice versa – along with a couple of other part-time roles to be announced.

As lunch winds down, Herrndorf acknowledges there have been some failures during his career, such as Peter Gzowski's mid-seventies late-night TV show, 90 Minutes Live, a notorious flop he helped launch at CBC. Still, "to this day, it was one of the projects I most loved, and if I'd known how it would end, I would have done it again, because I had such a good time." He adds: "The biggest failures have been some of the most interesting things. They haven't haunted me, I've learned from them. And oddly, I've even enjoyed them."

"So, I'm mostly upbeat. I mostly think there's going to be another adventure tomorrow."

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