National Arts Centre celebrates 50 years of creating magic through the performing arts

NAC hosts open house with special free activities and concert featuring NAC Orchestra

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Not only did the National Arts Centre have a big birthday on Sunday but it invited absolutely everyone to come out and help celebrate the 50-year milestone.

It hosted free backstage tours, along with choir, dance and theatre workshops, and pop-up performances and exhibitions. The festivities culminated that evening in Southam Hall with a free performance by the NAC Orchestra, music director Alexander Shelley and a number of Canadian guest artists and close friends of the orchestra.

The Open House, held in partnership with Doors Open Ottawa, was the largest public access to the NAC’s backstage in 25 years.

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Prior to the concert, guests gathered for a reception hosted in the NAC’s beautiful light-filled O’Born Room, which offers views of downtown Ottawa that seem close enough to touch. What’s an anniversary without a celebratory toast? NAC president and CEO Christopher Deacon got everyone to lift their glasses in honour of the country’s performing arts hub and its 50 years of wowing us.

Special guests included former governor general Michaëlle Jean, Mayor Jim Watson, founding members of the NAC Orchestra, and Mona Kelly, whose late husband, Mario Bernardi, was the Canadian conductor who help found the NAC Orchestra.


Sighted was former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley, who remains busy since leaving his position as CEO of the Business Council of Canada. He chairs the boards at both CIBC and CAE. Former CBC broadcast reporter Don Newman, now senior counsel with public relations firm Navigator, was in the mix, as were Maclean’s senior writer Paul Wells and his wife, Lisa Samson, managing principal at StrategyCorp. Heather Bradley, who’s director of communications for the Office of the Speaker of the House of Commons, was there. She used to work as an usher at the NAC during her university years at Carleton.

On hand was Annabelle Cloutier, the new executive director of communications and public affairs for the NAC. She was formerly with the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General for 10 years. Her predecessor, Rosemary Thompson, managed to pull herself away from beautiful Banff to attend the function. Thompson is now the vice president of marketing, communications and public affairs for the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.


Guests included Margo Roston and her brother, A.J. Freiman. Their father, businessman Lawrence Freiman, had been the inaugural chairman of the NAC board.

Roston said her father would be “thrilled beyond belief” to see how far the arts centre has come.

“It’s very exciting to see how the NAC has thrived, and how Ottawa has become such a wonderful cultural centre,” she told 

The founding visionary behind the creation of the NAC was Hamilton Southam (the NAC’s main concert hall is named after him). He passed away in 2008 but his son, Gordon Southam, reflected on what the place meant to him.

“It was his pride and joy,” Southam, a teacher at Glebe Collegiate Institute, told “He called it ‘The People’s Place’. He thought Canada, as a nation, deserved a proper arts institution in the capital, to make it a world-class place.”


Deacon reminded guests of how, on June 2, 1969, the opening of Canada’s new national arts centre drew 40,000 people.

“The NAC’s opening day was a moment of great pride for Canadians and a moment of promise,” he said at the podium. “Fifty years later, today’s Open House was a renewal of that promise, a day in which Canadians made the NAC their stage. It was marvellous to see how people of all walks of life felt at home and took over our spaces.”

These last few years have been a time of renewal for the NAC, beginning with the transformation of its building through a massive renovation. It successfully fundraised for a new $25-million national creation fund to help develop ambitious new Canadian works. Last year, it launched its new NAC Indigenous Theatre. The NAC Orchestra has just returned from a successful tour of Europe that showcased Canadian artists and composers on the world stage.

“Fifty years later, across all of our artistic disciplines, I’m proud to say the NAC has remained passionately committed to those ideals of creation, of Canadian stories and of excellence in the performing arts,” said Deacon.



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