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A revitalized National Arts Centre in Ottawa is shown in this artist's rendering. (Handout/Diamond Schmitt Architects/The Canadian Press)
A revitalized National Arts Centre in Ottawa is shown in this artist's rendering. (Handout/Diamond Schmitt Architects/The Canadian Press)

Renovations to help National Arts Centre finally fulfill its destiny Add to ...

Fifty years ago, Hamilton Southam talked Lester Pearson, then Canada’s Liberal prime minister, into building an arts centre in Ottawa to reflect the culture of the whole country. But throughout most of its history, the National Arts Centre has been in cutback and retrenchment mode, unable to live up to Southam’s vision.

Now, on the watch of CEO Peter Herrndorf – the 10th head of the organization since Southam ran the place in its first decade – the National Arts Centre finally may be about to achieve its destiny.

The celebrations surrounding the 150th anniversary of Confederation on July 1, 2017, have provided an opportunity for Herrndorf.

A two-phase total remake of the NAC’s building will take three years to complete, with a price tag of $225-million funded by the federal government. But more immediate is the $110-million facelift that will be finished in time for the hoopla on July 1 next year.

One of the most dramatic changes is that, after 48 years of facing the Rideau Canal and turning its back on the city, the building will be shifted – and given a new main entrance on Elgin Street, facing the city.

There was a reason it was originally built to face the canal. In that era, there were exciting plans for a grand plaza on the lagoon. There was going to be a spectacular new building where the old train station had been. There was going to be a beautiful marina.

None of these plans wound up being fulfilled, so the NAC became a lonely and odd creature of the lagoon.

That became the first fumble in the NAC’s history – but not the only one. “During its first 10 years, the NAC had a tremendous head of steam,” Herrndorf said in a recent phone interview. He splits his time between Ottawa and the midtown Toronto condo where he lives with his wife, Eva Czigler.

“It had a very bold vision from Hamilton Southam. It was doing innovative work, it had a lot of money and there was a sense that everything was possible. And in the early stages of his successor, Don McSween, the momentum continued.”

But then came the second, deadlier, fumble.

Funding from the federal government was slashed, and Southam’s vision became something like the lyrics of one of the era’s most popular songs – “the impossible dream” to “reach the unreachable star.”

“The opera was cancelled, the theatre rep company had to be abandoned,” Herrndorf said. As a result of the funding cut, the organization became focused entirely on Ottawa rather than on its national mandate. The NAC mounted less expensive productions and imported touring shows. It became much more local, and less exciting. The only saving grace was that the NAC Orchestra continued to play at the centre.

“Hamilton Southam’s notion was that the NAC should be buoyant,” Herrndorf said. Instead, the organization he launched became the incredible shrinking arts centre.

“It was the cumulative effect that got him frustrated,” Herrndorf said. “During part of that time he remained in Ottawa. Then he went to France for 10 years and simply kept his distance from the NAC. It became a source of tremendous sadness and frustration for him that the organization he had envisioned no longer had the energy and swagger it had when he was there.”

Herrndorf had completed stints as vice-president of CBC Television, publisher of Toronto Life and head of TVOntario when he took over as CEO of the NAC in 1999. Shortly after his arrival, Southam contacted him.

“We had the first of what became regular lunches at the Rideau Club. Before that, I had met him once or twice at large events but knew him mainly by his awesome reputation.

“Now he had moved back to Ottawa. He had a place in Rockcliffe. He wanted to reconnect. So we saw each other for a set-piece lunch – a small steak and apple pie with vanilla ice cream.”

More important than where and what they ate was what they talked about.

“He told me all about his dreams and aspirations and frustrations. They were wonderful, fascinating conversations.”

They did this for nine years, until shortly before Southam died on Canada Day, 2008. Herrndorf announced it to the NAC audience that night.

“For me, it had become an important relationship, both personally and professionally. He became like my second father.”

The family asked Herrndorf to deliver a eulogy at the funeral. “I’ve delivered a number of eulogies in my time, but this was the hardest one I ever had to do. There was a sense that I could not let him down, so I really sweated over it.”

Now, Herrndorf has the chance to restore Southam’s vision and make the NAC not just a place of local interest for people who live in Ottawa, but a national institution working with arts groups from one end of Canada to the other.

“We thought it was appropriate for the federal government to provide money to rejuvenate the building and its production facilities. But we also decided we needed a creation fund, which we felt should be private money,” Herrndorf said.

The point of the creation fund, led by Jayne Watson, CEO of the NAC Foundation, is to make it possible for new shows to be tweaked and improved before giving them a chance to go on either at the NAC or elsewhere. Almost $25-million has been raised, mostly from individuals and families.

So how long will Herrndorf, 76, stay at his job to make sure the NAC’s plans go smoothly? (His current contract runs until the fall of 2017.)

“The answer is I don’t know,” he says. “I have one of the great jobs in the country. This is a good place to be. And whenever I retire, I will make sure the NAC has lots of time to find the best possible successor.”

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story said the creation fund would help shows improve to have a longer life after the National Arts Centre. In fact, funding will also go to shows which are not planning to present at the NAC.

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Watch behind-the-scenes rehearsal of new NAC Orchestra’s Life Reflected (The Globe and Mail)

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