National Arts Centre | The Canadian Encyclopedia


National Arts Centre

Since its official opening by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on 31 May 1969, the NAC has realized many of the aspirations that informed its founding. Under the musical directorship of Mario Bernardi, it developed a 46-member orchestra with an international reputation.
National Arts Centre
Facade, Ottawa, Ontario (Environment Canada, The Heritage Recording Service).

The National Arts Centre Act was proclaimed on 15 July 1966 with a mandate for its Board of Directors "to operate and maintain the Centre, to develop the performing arts in the National Capital region, and to assist the Canada Council in the development of the performing arts elsewhere in Canada." The National Arts Centre (NAC) was built as a project to mark 100 years of Canada's Confederation. The elegant triple-hexagon complex on the banks of the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa was designed by Montréal architect Fred Lebensold. It consists of 3 performing spaces, a 2323-seat opera (now called Southam Hall), a 897-seat theatre, a 300-seat studio and, since 2001, a multi-purpose, multi-disciplinary Fourth Stage with a capacity of 150 seats. From 1981 to 1996 it also operated a nearby satellite pocket theatre, the Atelier, with a capacity of 84.


Since its official opening by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on 31 May 1969, the NAC has realized many of the aspirations that informed its founding. Under the musical directorship of Mario Bernardi, it developed a 46-member orchestra with an international reputation. The orchestra has toured nationally and internationally, has recorded over 35 albums and has commissioned over 50 Canadian works. From 1970 to 1984, the centre held a summer festival that included opera of the highest calibre. Its early days saw the establishment of both English- and French-language theatre companies and, for the first 2 years of the centre's existence, the Stratford Festival Company was a resident theatre company in the winter months. It has hosted galas, choirs, festivals, films, theatre and dance from across Canada and abroad. From 1978 to 1981 it toured its own theatre productions regularly, until decreasing government support made this program unaffordable.

However, controversy has also attended the NAC over the years, most of it deriving from the debates over mandate and financing. In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s it decreased the number of stage presentations it produced by itself, relying on co-productions with other theatre companies and on imported musical blockbusters like Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Riverdance and Notre Dame de Paris to subsidize its other operations.

Several directors general have headed the operations of the NAC: G. Hamilton Southam (1967-77); Donald MacSween (1977-87); Yvon Desrochers (1988-94); and Joan Pennefather (1994-95). After Pennefather's resignation in 1995 the unpaid chair of the Board of Trustees, Jean Thérèse Riley, provided much of the direction until John Cripton was appointed director and CEO in 1996. Cripton resigned in October 1998 after a dispute with the Board of Trustees, and was replaced a month later by Elaine Calder, who served as interim director and CEO until June, 1999. The following month, Peter Herrndorf was appointed director (later president) and CEO. Riley resigned as chair of the board in April 1999, and was quickly replaced by David Leighton (1999-2006). He was succeeded by Julia Foster (2006-).

In 2000, the NAC began to change its image and improve its fortunes. Under the leadership of Leighton and Herrndorf it developed a set of 4 strategic goals that have guided it since then and contributed much to its success. The strategic plan is entitled "Restoring the Vision: A New Direction for the National Arts Centre." Its goals are artistic expansion and innovation, greater emphasis on the NAC's national role, greater commitment to youth and educational activities, and greater increase in the NAC's earned revenues. Each of these goals has been closely followed and regularly reported on in its annual reports.


Many fine talents have directed the artistic accomplishments of the centre. Jean-Marie Beaudet served as music director from its inception to his death, when Mario Bernardi added that title to his role as founding conductor. The principal conductors of the acclaimed orchestra have been Mario Bernardi (1968-82); Franco Mannino (1982-87); Gabriel Chmura (1987-91); and Trevor Pinnock (1991-96). Pinnock was then artistic advisor from 1996 to 1998. Pinchas Zukerman served as music director designate from 1989 to 1999, and became music director in 1999; in 2006 his contract was extended to 2011. Franz-Paul Decker was principal guest conductor from 1991 to 1999. Mario Bernardi was named conductor laureate of the orchestra in 1998. Cathy Levy became producer of dance programming in 2000, and in 2001 Michel Dozois, previously producer of dance and special events, became producer of community programming and special events, which includes responsibility for the NAC's highly successful Fourth Stage.

Theatre operations at the centre have undergone much restructuring over the years, with several title changes. Jean Roberts, director of the theatre (1971-77), was succeeded by Jean Gascon (1977-84). The position of artistic director of the French theatre has been held by Jean Herbiet (1975-82), Andrée Brassard (1982-89), Robert Lepage (1989-93), Denis Marleau (2000-08) and Wajdi Mouawad (2008-09). Jean-Claude Marcus was artistic advisor (1993-2000) of the French theatre.

Jean Roberts was artistic director of the English theatre (1975-77), followed by John Wood (1977-84). Andis Celms was producer of theatre (1984-97) and Marti Maraden served as artistic director of English theatre from 1997 to 2005. During her tenure the centre reached out to the local theatre community to establish, in conjunction with Ottawa's Great Canadian Theatre Company, The Next Stage, a program designed to support the development of theatre artists in the national capital region. The artistic coordinator of this program was Lise Ann Johnson who also coordinated under Maraden an annual festival of readings of plays in progress by playwrights across Canada, entitled On the Verge. Peter Hinton succeeded Maraden in November 2005, and was replaced by Jillian Keiley in 2012.

In 1996, Brian Macdonald was appointed senior artistic advisor at the NAC and in 1997 Nicholas Goldschmidt was made artistic director of Festival Canada, to oversee that year the first of many summer festivals in the centre since 1984. MacDonald resigned in 1998 because of budget restraints, and Festival Canada was replaced in the summer of 1999 by a more modest and less expensive, yet popular, program by the NAC Orchestra. This program, often evenings of works by only one composer, attracted large and enthusiastic audiences.

Among the imaginative and innovative later work of the NAC is the Magnetic North Theatre Festival, which co-presents with the Canadian Theatre Festival Society. Inaugurated in 2003 under the artistic directorship of Mary Vingoe, it celebrates the best in contemporary Canadian theatre in English. Since that year the festival alternates each year between Ottawa and another Canadian city, including Edmonton in 2004 and St John's in 2006. In 2006 the NAC inaugurated Festival Zones Theatrales to showcase productions from Canada's francophone minority communities.

Later innovations also included the celebration of different provinces of Canada. In 2005, a 13-day celebration of Alberta during its centennial year included 95 artistic events and some 600 performing artists from that province. That year, which was also the centennial of Saskatchewan, the NAC orchestra toured both Alberta and Saskatchewan. In April and May of 2007, Québec Scene at the NAC comprised 100 events over 16 days involving 100 artists.

The NAC has done much to demonstrate its commitment to youth and educational activities. It has programmed specifically for schools in the form of student matinees, musicians in the schools, workshops for students, and professional development for teachers. It has developed a Summer Music Institute consisting of young artists' programs, conductors' programs, and young composers' programs. The NAC Orchestra also provides a series of master classes, bursaries for aspiring musicians, and a national showcase for young musicians. On its national and international tours the NAC Orchestra includes a busy and popular educational component wherever it goes. All these educational activities and several others are supported by the National Youth and Education Trust, which is funded by many corporations and individuals as well as by the NAC itself.

Financial Crisis and Initiatives

Much of the crisis and reorganization of the NAC through the 1990s was due to government cutbacks. In 1995 the federal government reduced the NAC's allocation from $21.6 million in 1995-96 to a projected $14.7 million in 1998-99. As a result of these cutbacks, there was a growing realization on the part of the administrators of the centre and its patrons that there must be substantial donations from the corporate and private sectors if it is to continue as a pivotal arts organization in Canada. Signs of this support were shown early in 1999 when a fund-raising campaign brought in more than $2 million in just over 2 months. The campaign enabled the centre to wipe out its accumulated deficit in that year.

The most notable of the fundraising initiatives of the NAC in later years was the establishment of the NAC Foundation. Since its inception in 2001, the foundation, with CEO Darrell Louise Gregerson, raised over $25 million to support programming at the centre. The federal government contributed about half the total revenue of the NAC, and in 2007 gave it a $56-million grant for capital projects - the largest it has ever received, and a far cry from the 1990s when its subsidy was reduced.

By the end of 1999 (the 30th anniversary year of its operations), with several distinguished and qualified people in key positions at the centre, the National Arts Centre began to recover the glitter and glory it enjoyed in its early years. It can now claim that it "has become Canada's foremost showcase for the performing arts." The stability and vibrancy it regained in 1999, with Leighton and Herrndorf at the helm, have enabled it to maintain that distinction.