Artful Musing

Local artists’ future uncertain on renovated NAC Fourth Stage

When the National Arts Centre created the 150-seat, cabaret-style Fourth Stage in 2000, it was intended to be a venue for local artists. Seven years later, with major renovations at the NAC nearing completion, local artists may find themselves increasingly pushed into a smaller, cheaper performance space in the building so The Fourth Stage can be used for non-local performers.

The Fourth Stage was never an exclusive venue for locals. It was considered too pricey by many even though the NAC says it was subsidizing the place. But, by and large, says Peter Honeywell, executive director of the Ottawa Arts Council, it was generally perceived as a good central space for local artists. The future, however, may be different.

The Fourth Stage was carved out of a former bookstore in the NAC. “It’s time this agency found a home and a venue for the best of local artists,” NAC chief executive officer Peter Herrndorf said in an interview at the time. “We have not provided an opportunity for a wide range of talent in this region to be showcased on our stages. You know and I know the relationship between the NAC and the local arts community has ebbed and flowed over the years but it’s never been as good as we would like.”

That relationship is at another crossroads as the renovated NAC unveils some new, airy public spaces starting in July, with yet more areas to open in October. Most of the new 5,500 square metres of new space is in the glass-enclosed tower-like structure, nicknamed The Lantern, on Elgin Street, which opens July 1. These new areas are, in the NAC’s words, destined to become Ottawa’s “living room.”

The “living room” actually sprawls over two floors and will be open to non-ticketed visitors, offering free wi-fi, a privately-run coffee shop and available for everything— from just hanging out to performances by amateur musicians and events for toddlers. The very steps connecting the two storeys of the “living room” are built like bleachers so that speakers or musicians can perform at the bottom of the occupied stairs. Or a choir could stand on the stairs and sing to an audience below. The two storeys of the tower include three rental rooms for meetings, wedding receptions and one mainly for performances seating 75 people who previously would have been in The Fourth Stage.

The Fourth Stage is closed until October but programming has already been arranged from October to next May. About 40 local artists or groups have been booked, with more to come. That’s about one-third of the total, says Heather Gibson, who is in charge of local programming and the series called NAC Presents, which is mainly non-local performers appearing in various NAC venues. Gibson was unsure what has been the usual ratio of local to non-local acts in The Fourth Stage. Local acts lined up for this fall include Black Denim, Pony Girl and Rebecca Noelle. Groups, as opposed to individual artists, that previously booked The Fourth Stage, for example, once a month, will now be limited to only four times a year, says Gibson.

There will be weekly Fridays at the Fourth when it reopens, with some new raised seating around the periphery and a stage that faces towards, rather than away from, the Elgin Street windows. These Friday events will present emerging artists both local and non-local. (Gibson, as talent scout, attends festivals and does coast-to-coast bar-hopping to identify the up-and-comers.) Performers will be selected and produced by the NAC. Ticket prices will be $15 for general admission and $10 for students.

The Ottawa Storytellers have used The Fourth Stage since 2000 for monthly performances during a seven-month period each year. The group feels it now must move because they can only book four times a year. Plus, the rental price for Thursday, the Storytellers preferred night, is increasing beyond what the group says it can pay. So there are negotiations ongoing about using the 75-seat room in the tower, which only accommodates an audience one half the size. Some other groups face similar dilemmas.

The Ottawa Arts Council’s Honeywell is concerned about the NAC’s long-term commitment to local programming. The NAC’s published strategic plan, taking the federal institution to 2020, is largely silent on the issue of local programming, he notes.

“I’m just not seeing where the local is being identified as part of that vision.”

Amid the gripes, however, is praise. A big fan of The Fourth Stage is the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival, which uses the space for many of its performances by mainly out-of-town acts.

“The Fourth Stage has been a ‘gift’ to all of us presenting live music in Ottawa,” says Catherine O’Grady, executive producer of the festival. “It is the only venue of its size that is equipped properly with technicians who know what they’re doing with respect to sound. We use it most of the time to host our Improvised music series which is just perfect for audience and for players! It has hosted our Winter Jazz Fest as well (except last year) and it too has been successful.”

The NAC’s Gibson maintains the organization is committed to local programming and speculates that the local community is somewhat unsure of the future having not seen the new spaces yet. Gibson concedes “there is a bit of a shuffle going on for sure” right now but “there’s more space here for the community than there ever has been.”