Jayne Watson earned a standing ovation and rave reviews last night in recognition of her sensational 22-year run at the National Arts Centre, where she has risen to star status as a top arts fundraiser in Canada.
Watson’s last day is this upcoming Wednesday as CEO of the NAC Foundation. She was honoured at a special dinner attended by NAC trustees, foundation board members, along with family and guests, in the Rossy Pavilion overlooking Confederation Square and Parliament.
“Fundraising has got to be the most difficult job that exists because people don’t usually part with their money willingly, even for a good public cause,” newly appointed chair of the NAC’s board of trustees, Guy Pratte, senior counsel at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, said at the podium. “Fundraising for the arts is probably the most challenging.”
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Watson pulled off a powerful and persuasive performance, however. The room heard how she led her team to reach record fundraising goals, raising some $125 million for the NAC. Her energy, enthusiasm and commitment to the arts, said Pratte, “would make her, as facts proved to be the case, the most successful arts fundraiser in the country.
“Under Jayne’s leadership, the foundation enabled the NAC to do things that we simply could never have done.”
Watson was not an experienced fundraiser when she assumed the role 14 years ago. “But boy did she ever ramp up fast,” said the NAC Foundation’s new board chair, Susan Glass of Winnipeg. “Jayne knew how to make friends, and that has been her hallmark. Everyone is her friend.”
In honour of Watson’s “remarkable career as a leader and mentor” the NAC has created a Jayne Watson Performing Arts Fellowship, Glass announced. Each year, emerging artists and arts professionals will be selected for the prestigious fellowship, and will receive a paid professional development opportunity, through the NAC.
“It is a fitting legacy that Jayne, who has dedicated her career to supporting the performing arts, will continue to support, uplift and inspire future generations of Canadian artists through this endowment in her name,” continued Glass before announcing that more than $230,000 has been raised to date by the NAC Foundation. “Now, because I‘m a freshman student of the Jayne Watson charm school of fundraising, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there is still the opportunity to contribute.”
Watson’s career at the NAC stretches back to 2001, when she became director of communications and corporate secretary. It was the late, great Peter Herrndorf, who was still quite new as the president and CEO at the time, who had encouraged her to apply for the job. She had been working at Export Development Canada.
Watson recalled how her first major project was to launch the NAC’s new strategic plan, written by Herrndorf and her new NAC colleagues, to put the “national” back in National Arts Centre. She had everything lined up, from media interviews to a prelaunch story on CBC News’ flagship national newscast.
The launch day turned out to be one of the most infamous and tragic dates in history: Sept. 11th, 2001. “I learned about pivoting before it was a word, from day one,” said Watson.
Herrndorf again coaxed Watson into making a big career move after Darrell Gregersen left the top position at the NAC Foundation. Herrndorf was “the type of person who saw potential in people before they saw potential in themself,” Watson told OBJ.social at the NAC. “I didn’t even think to put my hand up and Peter came and tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘I think you can do this job’. I was like, ‘No, no, no; I have enough stress in my life’.”
Herrndorf convinced Watson to go for it and, in 2009, she became the CEO. “It’s been the privilege of a lifetime,” said the award-winning fundraiser.
Among the goals Watson helped to accomplish was to get the NAC Orchestra back touring by securing donor support from corporations and individuals. They performed in China, U.K., Europe and across Canada. Last spring, the NAC Orchestra was at Carnegie Hall for its first time in decades. It was commissioned by the Jennings family to perform a new symphony written by renowned composer Philip Glass to commemorate the late Canadian-born broadcaster Peter Jennings and to explore the theme “Truth in Our Time”.
At the dinner, journalist and author Sarah Jennings received the Arnie Vered Award for Voluntarism in recognition of her 25-plus years of loyal support toward the NAC. Jennings penned Art and Politics: The History of the National Arts Centre and was the driving force behind a benefit concert that morphed into the annual Black & White Soirée at the NAC.
In attendance were members of the Vered family. Arnie was a well-known Ottawa businessman, community leader and married father of six. He was a member of the NAC Foundation board prior to passing away from pancreatic cancer in 2014, at age 57. Matriarch Sara Vered had the whole room chuckling when she told everyone that she’d been under the impression that she was Watson’s best friend. “She has so many best friends. She has a way of dealing with people with sensitivity, with understanding. She’s really a very special person.”
Under Watson’s leadership, the NAC Foundation raised millions from donors to establish the National Creation Fund. It invests in performing arts projects across the country, allowing artists the time, space and resources to make inspiring and impactful work.
In 2019, the NAC announced the transformational gift of $10 million — the largest single gift to the NAC — from Earle and Janice O’Born. “That was a pretty amazing moment,” said Watson, who made the big ask alongside NAC president and CEO Christopher Deacon. He was at the dinner and presented Watson with a gorgeous bouquet of flowers. Attendees also included Watson’s brother, former Ottawa mayor Jim Watson.
Among the highlights mentioned to OBJ.social by Watson were the Algonquin-led flotilla on the Rideau Canal in 2019 (it included members of the local Indigenous arts community and representatives from the Indigenous Theatre department) and the 2018 retirement dinner for Herrndorf that netted $1 million for the NAC’s Indigenous Theatre. She has fond memories of the NAC Galas, particularly the one featuring Ottawa-born headliner Paul Anka in 2013. There was also the surprise musical performance by then-prime minister Stephen Harper accompanied by legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma, at the 2009 gala.
Watson said she’s enjoyed watching the NAC return to life in the post-pandemic world. “It’s much more ‘the living room of the city’ that Peter [Herrndorf] had envisioned.”
In her remarks last night, Watson, 63, acknowledged an array of people, from artists to colleagues to donors to volunteers to family. She spoke of how Julia Foster, Gail O’Brien, Gail Asper, Adrian Burns, Janice O’Born and Susan Glass, through their leadership roles on the NAC and NAC Foundation boards, “taught me how women lead in the boardroom with smarts, compassion and a deep commitment to arts in Canada,” said Watson. “These women set the bar high when it comes to volunteerism and philanthropy.”
Watson, who has a fondness for Broadway musicals, concluded with an excerpt from the Canadian-created The Drowsy Chaperone’s As We Stumble Along song (no, she didn’t sing the lines).
Watson told OBJ.social how, after working for 40 years, she wanted to retire while she was still relatively healthy. “There’s a lot of stuff I want to do.” She and husband Peter Froislie, who retired four years ago, have two daughters, Olivia, 30, and Nicola, 27, both of whom have established careers of their own. Watson will do some volunteer board work with Business/Arts, a national charitable association.
Watson balked at the suggestion that her successor, who’s to be announced in the coming weeks, will have a hard time taking her place. “I didn’t want to be the person following in Darrell’s shoes, because Darrell was such an amazing, experienced, terrific fundraiser, but I did okay. I think whoever’s next is going to do a terrific job.”