This was no ordinary retirement dinner. An influential crowd made up of Supreme Court judges, business leaders and philanthropists, politicians, veteran journalists and award-winning performing artists came together Thursday to honour one of our country’s nation builders, Peter Herrndorf.
In just a few months, the National Arts Centre’s president and CEO will step down from a role that he’s embraced with such passion, intelligence and vision since 1999.
“Leading the National Arts Centre has been the greatest joy and privilege of my life,” Herrndorf, 77, told more than 400 guests who attended the tribute dinner, held in the National Arts Centre’s stunning new Canada Room.
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The classy event raised a net total of more than $1 million toward the NAC’s new Indigenous Theatre department.
The dinner was emceed by American-Canadian stage, film and television actor Colm Feore, who promised a night of food, drinks, speeches and performances.
“And, in the end, if we do everything right, Peter will rethink this stepping-down business,” he joked, eliciting laughter and applause from the audience.
The roster of talent included world-class pianist Angela Hewitt, singer-songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk and jazz singer Molly Johnson.
National Chief Perry Bellegarde with the Assembly of First Nations also surprised Herrndorf with a special blanketing ceremony to honour him. As well, a fascinating collection of photos from Herrndorf’s distinguished career with the NAC was viewed on giant screens and set to orchestral music.
There were many mentions of Herrndorf’s lasting legacy. Among his contributions are: creating a NAC Foundation, which has raised more than $140 million from donors across the country; increasing co-productions with theatre and dance companies from across Canada; launching the Scene Festivals involving thousands of artists from all regions; the NAC Orchestra tour of China; and the Foundation’s National Creation Fund to support ambitious new works by Canadian artists and arts organizations.
“He builds careers and opens door,” is how Feore described his influence. “To the uninitiated, he may seem like a silent partner. But to the initiated, he is the essential cog in the machine.”
Herrndorf deserves credit for the beautiful and recent transformation of the National Arts Centre into an iconic modern arts structure full of public spaces and scenic views of the city.
His dedication to the arts and to performing artists was recognized last year with his promotion to Companion of the Order of Canada. Come to think of it, there was no shortage of guests with Order of Canada pins on their lapels that night.
Attendees also included Supreme Court Justices Rosalie Silberman Abella and Michael Moldaver, Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, Rogers Communications vice-chairman Phil Lind, retired news anchor Lloyd Robertson, U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft, as well as Bruce Heyman, former U.S. ambassador to Canada, with his wife, Vicki. Also spotted was Mark Kristmanson, chief executive of the NCC, and Marc Mayer, CEO of the National Gallery.
The room heard from Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, NAC board of trustees chair Adrian Burns and the inaugural chair of its foundation, lawyer Guy Pratte, along with Kevin Loring, artistic director of the new Indigenous Theatre department. Its first season is slated for 2019.
The audience heard the story of how Herrndorf, a former journalist and one-time head of the Stratford Festival board, came to the NAC during a troubled time in its history.
He’d had just stepped down from his demanding role as chairman and CEO of TVOntario and was enjoying his appointment as a senior visiting fellow with Massey College at the University of Ottawa when he got a phone call from the board chair of the NAC. They were looking for a new chief executive.
Herrndorf was well aware of the recent turmoil at the NAC. It had gone through six CEOs in a decade, suffered from low morale and darkened theatres while retreating from its national mandate. As well, there was that donation scandal involving hockey player Alexei Yashin.
“When David Leighton asked whether I would consider the job I was, to put it mildly, ambivalent,” said Herrndorf.
Born in the Netherlands during the Second World War, Herrndorf was just a boy when he and his family sailed across the Atlantic in 1947 and settled in Winnipeg.
Herrndorf started his career as a journalist with CBC before climbing the ranks and developing such programs as The Fifth Estate. He earned his Master’s Degree in Administration at the Harvard Business School. He also served as publisher of Toronto Life magazine.
He became very good at telling stories that shaped our country.
“It would turn out to be the best professional decision that I would ever make.”
“And, as I sat and mulled over that phone call with David Leighton, I became more and more excited about the opportunity that it represented. I called him back and accepted his offer. It would turn out to be the best professional decision that I would ever make.
“The past 19 years have been an extraordinary adventure for me and I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude to all my NAC colleagues, and to all of you for being here tonight.
“If there’s any flaw in this evening it’s the singular focus on one person because, in fact, running the NAC is very much a team effort. Its many players, both inside and outside these walls, stretch back across the decades.”
Herrndorf graciously thanked everyone, beginning with his great mentor Hamilton Southam, “who dreamed the NAC into being – actually he willed the NAC into being.”
He continued on, naming chefs, NACO conductors, prime ministers and finance ministers, board chairs of the NAC and its Foundation, donors, artistic leaders and senior management. He acknowledged the staff that organized the dinner, and got everyone to join him in a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday to photographer and birthday boy Fred Cattroll, who’s been part of the NAC family for decades.
Herrndorf expressed gratitude to his family as well as his love for his wife Eva Czigler. She held down the home front and managed her own successful career while Herrndorf worked in Ottawa, commuting back to Toronto on weekends for 18-plus years.
“I look forward to being a live-in husband again,” he told her from the podium.