You can see the canal from Heather Gibson’s National Arts Centre office. You also can view signs of renovation. Signs of change. A green tractor passes by. Hard hats are evident.
Part of the change includes Heather’s arrival last September as the Executive Director of NAC Presents and Variety Programming. Heather came to Ottawa from the Maritimes, where she was the award-winning Executive Director of the Halifax Jazz Festival. Previously, she was the Founder and Artistic Producer of In the Dead of Winter Music Festival.
She took time on a very busy day (“It’s always busy here!”) to chat about her first six months in post and her plans for 2017/18.
And, no, she didn’t give away any secrets.
Apt613: So how have your first six months at the NAC been?
Heather Gibson: It’s been a great experience. My artistic colleagues have been very supportive. People have been asking me how I like Ottawa. I’ve been so busy travelling that I haven’t really had a chance to explore properly. I’ll soon have time in my schedule, so I definitely will.
Have there been any highlights to date?
There is one, but I can’t tell you. (Laughs) I’d get in trouble. You’ll find out soon enough. There have been a few.
One that I can tell you about is the k.d. lang ingénue redux gala in September. This was rewarding as it involved a number of NAC departments working together. And it’s been rewarding because of the public response.
What about surprises?
Artistically, it is as I thought it would be. Maybe this isn’t a surprise, but just having to navigate the way that the institution works. That’s not negative or positive. Because of the complexity of the big matrix, it’s not as simple as “someone is playing in Toronto and Montreal why can’t they come to Ottawa?” It’s not that simple. Some of the halls are booked for rehearsals, as an example. It’s a rare day that nothing is going on here. It’s just not always public.
“In a nutshell, I do all music except orchestra.”
The 2016/17 season had been set before your arrival.
Everything you see in the promotional pieces was set. I have added to that. The three days with Kid Koala, as an example. But most of what I’ve been doing has been for fall forwards.
Going back to Kid Koala for a moment, it was good to see families at the matinee performance. I altered the pricing with the hope that that would happen. I’m hopeful that in 2017/18 we can do more matinees for families, and for people who don’t want to come out in the evening. And maybe look at some pricing of seats so more families can afford to come to our performances.
Remind us of the NAC Presents mandate.
It’s to showcase Canadian songwriting. Now, it has been focused on singer-songwriter. I’m expanding that to a focus on song. So, in the future, you’ll see hip hop and roots. Less compositional work. Some country. A good complement of local acts. It will be much less focused on roots singer-songwriters. There are people who I know that I definitely want to introduce to Ottawa.
Another part of my portfolio is Variety Programming – so this may involve some theatrical musicals, small classical ensembles and some non-Canadians. Some of these will be in a hall that will help offset the costs of acts in the smaller hall. The spotlight will be on emerging acts, indigenous, and Francophone.
In a nutshell, I do all music except orchestra.
Before you began, you mentioned that you wanted to introduce an educational element.
So far it has been more workshops and talks. We will get into education, but probably not until the new building opens. There will be more space and rooms for education. And for 2018, we’ve thought of interdepartmental art camps. We have a lot of pokers in the fire.
There must be so much juggling when you are dealing with artists announcing tours at different times of the year, and with differing audience sizes.
Normally we book a season. But I’m not doing a season. You’ll see a number of shows scheduled, but it won’t be everything. I’m allowing room so an emerging artist can call me and say “I’m touring in 3 months”.
I’m glad that I’m not doing it as “once it’s done, it’s done”.
And we’ll go after rentals. We can offer halls for 100 to 2000. That’s a good range. So it depends where someone is in their career.
I would like acts to have a chance to play at the NAC. For instance, Port Cities were able to be here with Rose Cousins. That’s a good experience for them to play here to a full house. They will develop, and maybe one day they’ll remember us.
There are other venues in the city, and we all have attributes. I don’t necessarily see this as being in competition. Ottawa is a secondary market. Tertiary to some of the big acts. I would like to get on the radar as a venue to consider. It’s certain that a good foundation has been established.
Listening to NAC Presents on Spotify, which gives a sampler of acts that have been part of the program, you realize what talent Canada has.
I think that Canadian artists should be one of our great points of pride on an export level. We have a high standard. And think of the number of quality acts when we consider our population. With NAC Presents you’ll see new folks and old faces. And high quality songwriting.
Do you think there is a Canadian sound?
I’ve had people tell me there is a Canadian sound. I think there’s more a Canadian sensibility to songwriting. Particularly in the realm of folk music.
I have to think there is. There are lots of Canadian acts that are very popular in certain countries. Maritime groups are popular in Britain and Ireland. Maybe it’s the sense of humour. Even the superstars sound Canadian. It wasn’t out of national pride that I knew that Michael Bublé or Shania Twain were Canadian. Even Ann Murray.
We don’t write songs about New York or Tennessee. Songs with geographical references. We write and sing about open spaces, nature, air, cold, and trees.
You’ll be announcing the shows soon.
We’ll announce the first batch of shows on May 16. We’ll keep booking and adding as we go. 2017 /18 will be twice the size of this year. That’s mainly due to having the Fourth Stage re-open. We’ll consistently do Thursday, Friday and Saturday in there. Maybe acts will play at the Fourth Stage, and then open for someone in the Studio. We’ll be part of their career development. I would rather this be a home for Canadian artists rather than a place that you play on a special occasion.
Part of my job is to make sure that we’re accessible to people. That’s not all down to programming. Do you feel comfortable here? What are the ticket prices? Can you bring your family here?
We’re changing from where you must have a ticket to get in the door. I really hope that when the building opens, people will hang out here. We’re changing.