A quite romantic vision
Peter Herrndorf, 1940-2023
The notion that Canada constitutes a community whose attributes extend beyond its tax rate, its weather forecasts and the latest ledger of offences inflicted and endured has always rallied too many detractors and too few champions. The champions took a heavy loss overnight when Peter Herrndorf, one of the people I admired most in this world, died at the age of 82. No Canadian devoted himself to building and celebrating Canadian culture for as long as Peter did, with as much passion and good humour, and with so many spectacular results.
As the CBC’s VP for Television in 1982, he backed a 35-year-old producer named Mark Starowicz in extending the corporation’s national newscast to an hourlong package — The National/ The Journal — and moving it from 11 pm to 10 pm. This was a huge bet that people could be made to care about serious things, and as a teenager I followed the exploits of Knowlton Nash and his new co-hosts, Barbara Frum and Mary Lou Finlay, avidly. The Corp has sometimes needed reminding that it has to lead in journalism or it will fall behind. Nobody gave it a mightier push than Herrndorf and Starowicz. At TVO, Ontario’s public television channel, Herrndorf coaxed a young anchor named Steve Paikin away from the CBC in 1992, where Paikin became one of the country’s most trusted television journalists in what would once have seemed its least promising venue.
But it was Herrndorf’s work at the National Arts Centre that marked his greatest success as a cultural-industry turnaround man. The little cluster of performance spaces on the Rideau Canal was running on fumes when he got here. By the time he retired in 2017, the NAC had reclaimed its role at the centre of multiple Canadian cultural conversations — with an influence extending far beyond the capital. Theatre in Montreal and Stratford, Winnipeg and Halifax have benefited from the NAC’s renaissance. Dance companies in Vancouver, Toronto and Edmonton have built some of their best shows in collaboration with the NAC. Bands have known the NAC as a second home on their climb to fame.
Quite incidentally, Peter Herrndorf was a friend and mentor who helped guide me a dozen times in my own career. My podcast began as an item on his wish list a decade ago. That I stayed in journalism instead of finding some money gig is, in part, down to encouragement from Herrndorf when I was wavering badly. You can’t do this work — any work, I suppose — if people don’t believe in you. Peter was always in the believing business.
The National Arts Centre was worn out when he became its CEO at 58 in 1999. A centennial project (planned for 1967, opened in 1969 — not a great omen, that) driven by a persuasive advocate from old newspaper money, Hamilton Southam, its creation had been bankrolled by Lester Pearson’s government at a time when everything seemed possible for the fast-growing Canadian federal state. Within a decade that can-do spirit was ebbing. By the 1990s the NAC felt like White Elephant on the Rideau. It had had seven CEOs in a decade and had cut back most of its activities.
Herrndorf was recruited by a savvy new board chair, David Leighton. They offered the feds a deal: Hold funding steady, and the NAC would increase revenues by attracting more philanthropic giving, and by increasing ticket sales and other earned revenue.
To the NAC’s artists and staff, Leighton and Herrndorf offered a simple new vision: lead again.
In Sarah Jennings' definitive book Art and Politics: The History of the National Arts Centre, Herrndorf says that on arriving in Ottawa he took inspiration from Hamilton Southam's original vision of an NAC with national scope and a desire to lead in artistic creation. "It was a big, ambitious, meaty, quite romantic vision,” he told Jennings, “and that was very appealing to me."
In the first strategic plan developed under his guidance, in 2001, Herrndorf described the NAC’s decline. “We became complacent. We stopped being a centre of creativity.” When Parliament cut the NAC’s budget line, “we had neither the instincts nor the skills to become more entrepreneurial.” The remedy, he wrote, lay in “re-establishing our track record and our record as a creative force in the Canadian performing arts.”
The English- and French-language Theatre departments started creating more original productions and cementing partnerships with other arts organizations across Canada. Biennial “Scene” festivals brought performers from each of Canada’s regions to Ottawa in extended multidisciplinary showcases. The NAC Orchestra increased its roster of musicians, toured more often in Canada, and in 2015 became the home for music director Alexander Shelley, a Brit who has been one of Canada’s strongest advocates for performing new music and educating young musicians.
The NAC is far more beautiful and functional now, thanks to a major architectural expansion that was opened in 2017 by then-Prince Charles. The NAC is now home to an Indigenous Theatre component that gives Indigenous creators a permanent home. Creating that new institution within the NAC was a typically daring Herrndorf idea. When he retired, his farewell dinner was an Indigenous Theatre fundraiser.
And arts projects right across the country have benefited from the National Creation Fund, a $20 million venture-capital fund — entirely funded by major donors and designed to be spent down over several years rather than kept inert as an endowment — that gives new plays and other projects the resources they need for workshopping, redrafting and improvement before they meet their audiences. The list of projects the Creation Fund has benefited is vast.
I used to love my occasional lunches with Peter at the NAC’s canal-side restaurant. He’s the one who invited me to give pre-concert talks about the musicians the Orchestra would be performing, and post-concert interviews with the musicians onstage. He loved indulging in political gossip over lunch, but for my appearances with the Orchestra he didn’t have the faintest interest in hearing me talk about anything except music. He asked me to join the search committee that ended up naming Alexander Shelley as the Orchestra’s music director. And he had one more project he wanted to encourage: a “smart talk” component at the NAC, modelled after the Munk Debates he enjoyed attending in Toronto. For the longest time we couldn’t make it work, but he was delighted when I began interviewing newsmakers at the NAC soon after his retirement. Those interviews became the template for my podcast and public interview series today. In recent months we had been exchanging emails about getting him out to attend one of those interviews. I last saw him at a fundraising gala at the NAC in November.
Herrndorf never forgot that the A in NAC stands for Arts, not Administrators. He was here to help creative people create things. He was born in Amsterdam and grew up in Winnipeg and to him it was just automatic that you could be as interested in new things, and in the whole historic sweep of human creation, in either place. I’d been asking him for advice less often in recent years, but when I need to decide how to proceed, I still often ask myself what he’d have done. The people who worked with him for years at the NAC and elsewhere will be terribly bereft by his loss, but to him it would have been obvious what to do next: more, better.