National Arts Centre becomes more ‘national’ in 2020


The pandemic may have shut its doors for most of 2020, but it didn’t stop the National Arts Centre (NAC) from finding ways to showcase and support artists across the country in ways it hadn’t before.

“Suddenly an opportunity to change presented itself,” said Christopher Deacon, president and CEO of the multi-disciplinary and bilingual arts centre in downtown Ottawa. 

“In any normal time it’s very hard to give up habits, to change behaviour.”

In the last days of winter, COVID-19 forced the NAC to shut down its stages and cancel all performances. Revenue evaporated from ticket sales, banquets and restaurant meals, even the downtown parking garage.

“To experience the building empty was quite shocking,” said Deacon.

He said his team scrambled to adapt and find innovative ways to continue to support Canadian artists, helped by $18.2 million in emergency funding from the federal government.

Suddenly an opportunity to change presented itself.– Christopher Deacon, NAC

The NAC partnered with Facebook to launch Canada Performs, which is still offering daily performances livestreamed from artists across the country in the new year. It’s paid to host more than 600 musicians, actors, dancers and writers.

“We looked at it as an emergency relief fund,” said Heather Gibson, the NAC’s executive producer of popular music and variety.

But whether audiences would leap at a chance to view virtual performances was another question.

“Would people really go on a Tuesday night to watch a concert on their computer screen?” Deacon recalls wondering.

He’s been surprised and delighted by the answer.

“In fact, tens of thousands of Canadians did just that,” said Deacon, “so that was a big thing.”

Digital screens on the side of the National Arts Centre display a rainbow in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic on Sunday, April 19, 2020. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

For Deacon this meant the NAC could shine a spotlight on performers from communities across the country without the logistics of travel and seating space.

“It created this great opportunity for me to accomplish some of what I was trying to do,” said Juno-winning Alberta musician Celeigh Cardinal, who had to scrap this year’s plans for a tour through eastern Ontario.

Celeigh Cardinal, who won the Juno for Indigenous Music Album of the Year, is one of more than 600 artists that have taken part in Canada Performs. (Megan Kemshead)

She said she’d always dreamed of performing at the National Arts Centre and, ahead of a mid-December stream, thought being showcased on Canada Performs would help her expand her audience.

“So it’s pretty incredible that a career goal like that has managed to be met while in a pandemic.”

New partnerships, programming and vision

The NAC also reached out to regional arts and theatre groups to co-produce performances, including teaming up with Ottawa’s Bluesfest for the first time to present a series of weekend drive-in concerts

“These partnerships have sparked automatically and they’re really driven by need,” Deacon said. “I think this is going to continue.” 

WATCH from June | The goal of the NAC’s Bluesfest partnership:

Heather Gibson, executive producer of popular music and variety at the National Arts Centre, says artists and production experts are looking to get back to work after months of COVID-19 cancellations. 1:14

But according to Deacon, one of the most significant shakeups at the NAC is a “radical change in programming” in response to a social movement that gained steam during the pandemic.  

Deacon said the murder of George Floyd in May inspired a social reckoning that could not be ignored and caused the cultural institution to re-examine itself to be more inclusive, diverse and relevant.

The NAC orchestra has added Black, Hispanic and female composers to its repertoire, while the English theatre has partnered with Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop.



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