The changing face of art: How Canada’s arts institutions stay relevant in the digital age

LYNN SAXBERG  Ottawa Citizen

At one point during Dan Mangan’s superb performance with the National Arts Centre Orchestra a couple of months ago, the popular Vancouver singer-songwriter and father of two revealed that listening to classical music helps him relieve stress and get centred before a show. 

Then he stepped to the side, letting Ottawa’s world-class orchestra demonstrate the calming effect of one of his favourite pieces, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The near-capacity audience, a youthful crowd that looked to be mostly under 45 or so, was rapt. No one ducked out for drinks or yacked during the moving piece, which was the evening’s only departure from Mangan’s repertoire. 


The concert was part of the NAC’s Sessions series, an initiative that matches Canadian singer-songwriters with the orchestra, and provides support in commissioning orchestral arrangements of their songs. It’s a collaboration between two NAC departments — NACO and NAC Presents — and it’s been an unqualified success. Both Mangan and the orchestra received multiple standing ovations that night, with a similar reaction every time NACO backs a popular musician. Other instalments of the series have featured pop-music artists such as Patrick Watson, Stars and Jann Arden.

Part of the objective of the Sessions series is to develop the artistry of Canadian singer-songwriters, but it’s also designed to expose younger audiences to the orchestra. Thanks to Mangan’s genuine warmth and down-to-earth demeanour, in his jeans and untucked shirt, not to mention his obvious respect for the orchestra, it appeared to work like a charm. One example was a friend who brought his rock guitar-playing teenage son to the concert. “How come you’ve never taken me to the orchestra before?” was the young musician’s reaction.

Musician Dan Mangan playing with the NAC Orchestra on Nov. 23, 2018. (Photo: Ming Wu) JPG

That’s the kind of feedback that delights the NAC’s top brass. Aging audiences have been a concern for the orchestra industry in Europe and North America for decades, especially since the 2008 economic downturn and the subsequent rise of digital technology. People have more entertainment options than ever before, and most of those options are readily available at all times without having to budge from the couch. 

“Greying audiences, this is something that we have been talking about and thinking about in the industry since I joined 19 years ago,” said Arna Einarsdóttir, the NAC’s relatively new managing director of the orchestra, who came from a similar job with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra in her homeland. “Times change so fast now and there’s so much competition for people’s time and everything is so accessible on your phone. Of course you have to be adapting to this in different ways.” 

(Japan is one country where it’s a different story, largely because of a strong tradition of music education in schools. There are more than 1,500 amateur and professional orchestras in the country, including no fewer than nine full-time, professional orchestras in Tokyo alone.)

It’s important to note that Canadians still love to consume culture. In a 2016 study on Canadians’ Arts, Culture, and Heritage Participation, funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, Canadian Heritage and the Ontario Arts Council, researchers found nearly nine in 10 Canadians (aged 15 and over) attended an art gallery, arts performance, artistic or culture festival or a movie theatre monthly. Even when movie theatre attendance was excluded, 73 per cent of Canadians attended an arts performance or exhibition.

NACO conductor Alexander Shelley. (Photo: Andre Ringuette) ANDRE RINGUETTE / © ANDRE RINGUETTE/FREESTYLE PH

The report also found that participation rates in the arts have increased over 25 years. There were strong increases in art gallery and historic site attendance rates between 1992 and 2016, while movie theatres, museums, and other heritage activities also saw increasing attendance rates. 

Still, there’s no question that audiences and their tastes are changing as millennials age and the population diversifies. This is clear in the findings of the first Culture Track report, a 2018 survey of cultural consumers in Canada, that shows allophones, those whose first language is neither English nor French, are more likely to attend a cultural event than anglophones or francophones, and millennials are the demographic most likely to participate monthly in a cultural activity such as visiting a music festival or museum.

In Ottawa, two of the country’s most important cultural institutions — the National Arts Centre and the National Gallery of Canada — have been responding to shifting demographic tastes by attempting to introduce culturally diverse content that appeals to a broad age range. Both institutions also have dynamic new leadership in place to take them into the next decade.

Guests during a sneak peek and tour of the National Arts Centre’s new public and catering spaces. WAYNE CUDDINGTON / POSTMEDIA

Of course, the National Arts Centre is uniquely positioned in the arts world to deal with these challenges — the resident orchestra under the direction of maestro Alexander Shelley, 40, is only the start of its offerings. There are departments devoted to dance, English theatre, French theatre, variety and popular music, plus the newest branch, Indigenous theatre, which launched last year and was touted as the world’s first national Indigenous theatre program. What’s more, under its roof are four stages of different sizes, along with attractive public spaces gained in the recent renovation of the building. 

“Where else can you go where you can go to a single hall in a small city and see the finest dance in the world, have a really first-class orchestra, theatre in two languages, a great meal and a popular music series, which includes the youngest of artists all the way to the heavy hitters on the main stage? And it’s all at a relatively modest ticket price. It’s a very remarkable institution,” said Sarah Jennings, a former arts journalist and author of Art and Politics: The History of the National Arts Centre. A second edition of the 2009 book came out last year.

Artistic directors and staff in each department are continually working to adapt to audience demographics while maintaining the quality of the shows. The orchestra has a multi-generational approach that includes the core classical programming and the Sessions series, as well as Casual Fridays, with pre- and post-concert hobnobbing for young professionals, the Family Adventures series for parents and children, and the ever-popular Pops series, featuring the orchestra performing a program ranging from movie scores to 80s music to the Beatles, to name a few themes. Also important are the community outreach and education programs that bring orchestra musicians to schools, often taking the place of music classes. 

“Music education in school systems is getting less and less, and Canada is no different from other western countries in cutting down on creative subjects,” said Einarsdóttir. “I actually feel we’re robbing our children of such a key and fundamental thing in being human. So while our communities are not realizing this, we are taking on the role and doing community engagement all over the country.”

Music Monday taking place at the NAC in Ottawa Monday May 6, 2019. Thousands of students, musicians, parents and community members across Canada will sing together creating the world’s largest single event dedicated to raising awareness for music education. TONY CALDWELL / POSTMEDIA

Meanwhile, the English theatre department under Jillian Keiley has long been committed to diversifying the voices on its stages, including plays that feature actors with disabilities, those written by women and works by culturally diverse playwrights such as Jeff Ho and Jivesh Parasram. As for the dance programming, curated by Cathy Levy, it’s considered among the best in the country, with a thoughtful balance between classic ballet performances and innovative modern-dance works. 

The NAC Presents concert series, which features mostly Canadian singer-songwriters, is the most radical programming change in the institution’s history, a significant departure from the centre’s previous focus on the so-called high arts of theatre, orchestra and dance. (Opera faded away with the demise of Ottawa’s Opera Lyra in 2011.)

Launched in 2011, the same year opera died, NAC Presents was an immediate success and has grown to include a whopping 150 concerts in the 2019-20 season, featuring a wide range of emerging and established artists, from Jann Arden to Zaki Ibrahim. 

The sub-series, Fridays at the Fourth, has also proved popular, presenting lesser known artists in the 150-person capacity Fourth Stage with a $15 ticket ($10 for students) available at the door. 

“The idea that only a certain kind of people come to the NAC is immediately debunked in my department,” says Heather Gibson, who’s executive producer of NAC Presents and in charge of popular music and variety programming. “It took two years but now we’re at a point that Fridays at the Fourth are almost always sold out, and we know from asking the audience that 50 per cent don’t know what they’ve come to see, they’re just coming to see live music. It’s a discovery series.” 

Adding to the sense of discovery is the fact that Fridays at the Fourth concerts are now livestreamed on the NAC Presents Facebook page. Online viewership has been growing slowly since the endeavour started last year, but the Silent Winters concert in December saw a big spike in traffic. According to Gibson, more than 900 people around the world watched the Ottawa folk duo perform their Christmas show. 

Naturally, the goal is still to get actual bums in seats, and those numbers are encouraging. Officials say overall NAC attendance is back on track, with close to one million visitors last year, after a dip during the $225.4-million architectural renewal project that was unveiled on July 1, 2017. The building remained open during construction, although programming was limited. 

After 30 years, the NAC changed the uniforms of its ushers. This is in sync with the redesign of the building. Usher Geneviève Laforce in the new uniform alongside the uniform that was worn for the past 30 years. September 19, 2018. ERROL MCGIHON / POSTMEDIA

Much of the new energy at the NAC can be attributed to former CEO Peter Herrndorf, who took over leadership of the institution in 1999 at a time when the organization was in “complete disarray,” writes Jennings in her book. 

During his 19 years at the helm, Herrndorf championed the pursuit of private donations, re-emphasized the institution’s national mandate through education and outreach programs and pushed for the building’s renovation as part of his overall vision for greater accessibility to the arts. The reno included the Kipnes Lantern, the dramatic glass tower of video projections that serves as a beacon at the Elgin Street entrance. It’s a large improvement to the street facade of the formerly bunker-like building. 

The newly created public spaces allow for free programming such as a weekly powwow workout class, meditation group, Toddler Tuesday activities for pre-schoolers, and even occasional concerts, also free. With a coffee shop, funky chairs and a free Wi-Fi network, what used to be a dead zone during the day is now a well-equipped spot to hang out. There was even a new position created, a director of visitor experience, to oversee all of the details of an NAC visit, whether or not you’re buying a ticket. 

Christopher Deacon, President and CEO, National Arts Centre NAC in Ottawa, Ontario. (Photo: Serge Gouin) SERGE GOUIN / SERGE GOUIN, SEGOPHOTO.CA

Not long after Herrndorf retired in June 2018, Christopher Deacon, the former managing director of the orchestra, assumed the top job, the first CEO to be appointed from within the organization. He has a strong belief in the intrinsic value of the performing arts, but has seen big shifts in ticket-buying habits and audience engagement throughout the arts industry. 

In an interview in his canal-side office, Deacon said today’s audiences are less inclined to buy a subscription package to an entire season of plays, orchestra concerts or dance performances, but more likely to buy single tickets. He estimates the ratio has shifted from a 65 per cent subscription rate, with 35 per cent singles, to about 40 per cent subscriptions and the rest singles. 

“The model the performing arts have been using for years is the subscription model,” Deacon said. “It was something that people found suited the tempo of life 20 years ago, and some people still find it convenient, but the majority now are single tickets.”

While this means a less predictable revenue stream for the presenter, social media makes it possible to connect with a wider audience in a shorter time frame. “We have a new set of challenges with respect to marketing and attendance because of that shift towards single tickets, but there are also upsides because single-ticket buyers tend to be younger and more diverse,” Deacon said.

In Jennings’ opinion, getting the word out is now the institution’s biggest challenge. “The arts centre has a lot to do in terms of reaching its public but it’s got a really good talent amongst its artistic leadership. It’s for the corporate structure to become more nimble and flexible in adapting to this new world. They’ve got the product, they now have to make sure the public is aware of what they’ve got,” she said.

REDress Project, an installation of red dresses at the NAC representing the loss of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Ottawa, March 07, 2019. JEAN LEVAC / POSTMEDIA NEWS

Another factor working in favour of the NAC is a robust fundraising arm, the National Arts Centre Foundation, which received a landmark $10-million donation last year from philanthropists Earle and Janice O’Born. Funds raised by the foundation support artistic endeavours, new creations and educational programs at the NAC.

“Not only did the O’Borns make a donation, but they did it in a way that wasn’t necessarily targeted. They’ve gotten to know people in the company and they’re excited by what the artistic directors are doing. It’s an expression of confidence in the leadership team,” said Deacon. 

“For me, as a relatively new fundraiser, I’m taking a lesson from that. People give to people. This is hopefully a growing crescendo in philanthropic circles in Canada that the arts are a really good investment.”

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