MEET THE NAC’S NEW CHIEF
NACO director promoted to top job
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.