NACO direc­tor pro­moted to top job

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - PETER HUM phum@post­ twit­­ter­hum

When Christopher Dea­con was a young boy grow­ing up on the Que­bec side of the Ot­tawa River in the mid-1960s, he was puz­zled by the gi­ant hole with boards all around it at the north end of El­gin Street.

Dea­con asked his fa­ther Bill about it. “That’s go­ing to be Canada’s Na­tional Arts Cen­tre,” his fa­ther replied.

“When the place opened, he took us to see a whole va­ri­ety of performances here,” Dea­con con­tin­ued in an in­ter­view.

You can draw a long line con­nect­ing those early ex­pe­ri­ences with the NAC to the big pro­mo­tion that Dea­con, 59, re­ceived Tues­day, more than five decades later. After 22 years as the NAC Orches­tra’s man­ag­ing direc­tor, Dea­con took over as the NAC’s pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive. He is the first per­son in the NAC’s 49-year his­tory to have been pro­moted from within the or­ga­ni­za­tion to its top post.

“Je suis flab­ber­gasté!” a jovial Dea­con told a large and up­beat throng of col­leagues and sup­port­ers at a noon-hour gath­er­ing in the NAC’s atrium. “I am so thrilled to take up the lead­er­ship.”

Dea­con takes over at the NAC fol­low­ing Peter Her­rn­dorf ’s cel­e­brated, almost 19-year turn at the helm. Her­rn­dorf, 77, is cred­ited with trans­form­ing the NAC into an ar­tis­ti­cally vi­brant and fi­nan­cially vi­able en­tity fol­low­ing a rock­ier time in the 1990s. In re­cent years, Her­rn­dorf over­saw the $225.4-mil­lion architectural re­ju­ve­na­tion of the in­sti­tu­tion, and was in­stru­men­tal in launch­ing the new depart­ment of In­dige­nous theatre, which is gear­ing up for its de­but sea­son in 2019.

At Tues­day’s gath­er­ing, Her­rn­dorf, who is in Greece, con­grat­u­lated Dea­con via a pre-recorded video. “You have been a bril­liant man­ag­ing direc­tor for the NAC Orches­tra and I know you’re go­ing to be equally bril­liant as the NAC’s new CEO,” Her­rn­dorf said.

The search for Her­rn­dorf ’s re­place­ment be­gan in Novem­ber 2017 and a re­cruit­ing com­mit­tee con­sid­ered many can­di­dates from across the coun­try. “We found the right per­son right here at the NAC to pro­vide the vi­sion and lead­er­ship nec­es­sary to guide the or­ga­ni­za­tion into its next half-cen­tury,” said Adrian Burns, chair­woman of the NAC’s board of trustees. “Few peo­ple know the NAC as well as Christopher Dea­con.”

Born in Montreal to an Ir­ish mother and a fa­ther who was a clar­inet-play­ing Cana­dian Armed Forces mu­si­cian, Dea­con was one of five chil­dren who grew up in a mod­est but mu­si­cal house­hold. After mov­ing to Aylmer and then Hull, Dea­con went to the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto to study mu­sic, but only after a sum­mer job at the NAC, where he worked in its kitchen.

About a decade later, Dea­con re­turned to the NAC to work in the mu­sic depart­ment as NACO’s tour man­ager. “I was con­vinced it would be just for a year or two be­cause who wants to come back to where your par­ents are,” Dea­con said in an in­ter­view. In­stead, he rose through the ranks.

“At a cer­tain point I got re­ally hooked,” Dea­con said. “When I be­came man­ag­ing direc­tor of NACO, the first big job I had to do was re­cruit as mu­sic direc­tor Pin­chas Zuk­er­man, and if that doesn’t get you ad­dicted to mu­sic for­ever, noth­ing will.”

In re­cent years, Dea­con has been cru­cial to some of the NAC’s most high-pro­file projects. He led the NAC Orches­tra on its 2013 tour of China and its 2014 U.K. tour. He was also in­stru­men­tal in re­al­iz­ing what’s been called the most am­bi­tious pro­duc­tion in the orches­tra’s his­tory, the com­mis­sioned mul­ti­me­dia work Life Re­flected.

That ac­claimed work, which paid tribute to four re­mark­able Cana­dian women, was per­formed at the NAC and across Canada dur­ing the orches­tra’s sesqui­cen­ten­nial tour last year. In 2019, Life Re­flected will be per­formed in­ter­na­tion­ally as part of the orches­tra’s 50th an­niver­sary tour of Europe.

Out­side of the orches­tra, Dea­con chaired the NAC com­mit­tee over­see­ing its architectural re­ju­ve­na­tion and pro­duc­tion re­newal projects with a com­bined bud­get of $225.4 mil­lion that have up­dated, re-ori­ented, bright­ened and soft­ened the NAC’s orig­i­nal bru­tal­ist de­sign.

“When he (Her­rn­dorf ) asked me three years ago to su­per­vise the re­newal of the build­ing, I thought he had lost his mind,” Dea­con said. “I mean, I’m a mu­sic guy. What do I know about con­crete and steel?

“But in con­ver­sa­tions with him I started ad­vanc­ing this no­tion that the project is re­ally about re­new­ing the in­sti­tu­tion through re­new­ing the build­ing. He seemed to like that.”

Dea­con agreed that his lead­er­ship could be seen as pro­vid­ing con­ti­nu­ity after Her­rn­dorf ’s suc­cesses. “I am quite aligned with his vi­sion and val­ues,” Dea­con said. “But having said that,” he con­tin­ued, “an artis­tic or­ga­ni­za­tion is only go­ing to thrive if it is re­new­ing and changing con­stantly.”

Flu­ently bilin­gual, Dea­con as­serted a com­mit­ment to im­prove the NAC’s con­nec­tion to French Canada, a pri­or­ity iden­ti­fied in the NAC’s spring 2016 strate­gic plan. He said in an in­ter­view he ex­pects to spend more time in fran­co­phone artis­tic com­mu­ni­ties in Montreal, Que­bec City and be­yond.

Dea­con also spoke with pride about the NAC’s ad­vances in pre­sent­ing the sto­ries of In­dige­nous peo­ple, with I Lost my Talk, the com­po­nent of Life Re­flected in­spired by the poetry of the late Mi’kmaq poet and El­der Rita Joe, as well as with the NAC’s depart­ment of In­dige­nous theatre, which is gear­ing up for its de­but sea­son next year.

At Tues­day’s gath­er­ing, Al­go­nquin El­der An­nie Smith St- Ge­orges pre­sented Dea­con with an eagle feather to hon­our his lead­er­ship, and ex­pressed her hope that he would as­sist in the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween In­dige­nous peo­ple and other Cana­di­ans.

Also on Dea­con’s mind are the NAC’s ini­tia­tives in a dig­i­tal world. “You can­not serve a na­tional stake­holder au­di­ence from one city with­out us­ing dig­i­tal,” said Dea­con.

He noted that orches­tra’s mu­si­cians are al­ready on­board re­gard­ing ev­ery­thing from lis­ten­ers us­ing so­cial me­dia in Southam Hall to the prospect of stream­ing performances.

“Dig­i­tal will be ev­ery­thing from pro­gram de­liv­ery, learn­ing, the way we re­cruit, the way we com­mu­ni­cate, the way we sell tick­ets ... so many things,” he said.

Dea­con said that as a leader he stresses “re­cruit­ing bril­liant peo­ple,” es­tab­lish­ing clear goals, en­sur­ing that re­sources are avail­able, and then man­ag­ing “with a light touch.

“Give them room to breathe,” Dea­con said. “When you hire bril­liant peo­ple, they are very mo­ti­vated and they can chart their own course.” The Christopher Dea­con file

Who: The Na­tional Arts Cen­tre’s new pres­i­dent and CEO

For­merly: The NAC Orches­tra’s man­ag­ing direc­tor for 22 years Born: Montreal; Lives: West­boro

Raised: Aylmer and the Wrightville neigh­bour­hood of Gatineau’s Hull sec­tor, at­tended D’Arcy McGee High School,

Lan­guages: Flu­ently bilin­gual an­glo­phone

First mem­ory of the NAC: A “gi­ant hole in the ground” in the 1960s

Stud­ied: Mu­sic at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto

Artis­tic pur­suits: Com­poser, “crappy flute player”

Fam­ily: wife Gwen Good­ier, an ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor at En­vi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Change Canada; daugh­ter Char­lotte, 20, and stepchil­dren Peter, age 29, and Kather­ine, age 32.

Dig­i­tal will be ev­ery­thing from pro­gram de­liv­ery, learn­ing, the way we re­cruit, the way we com­mu­ni­cate ... so many things.


“I am so thrilled to take up the lead­er­ship,” Christopher Dea­con said Tues­day, when he was named the pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Na­tional Arts Cen­tre.

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