Heather Gibson must ensure that the architectural vision of Donald Schmitt and his team (the people behind the NAC’s new design) realizes its populist potential. She wears two hats: one is as head of NAC Presents, which offers mainly music acts from outside Ottawa that can be booked into any of the centre’s eight stages and programming spaces, and the is that of head of community programming, dealing with local groups and artists who want to book NAC spaces. She also tries to ensure that Ottawa audiences feel welcome. It’s a big job that takes her to gritty bars, sees her mingling with new moms, and might just up her mah-jong skills.
How do you identify acts — in Ottawa or elsewhere — to book for NAC Presents?
I spend the summer at the folk festivals. I talk to my colleagues across the country about who is the new young kid in Regina and who do I need to see if I’m out in Montreal. So it’s a matter of going to some pretty sticky bars.
What about programming for the new non-ticketed spaces in the NAC?
We’ll be offering the staircase [in the Lantern] and the room at the bottom to groups — not just with an arts focus. We may do things like Toddler Tuesdays, so if you want to come with your toddler, we have a whole bunch of programming for parents and tots on Tuesday mornings. On a Wednesday, we might do things like a mah-jong tournament. There might be book launches, talks, brown-bag lunches. It is also a space we could use if approached by a community choir that wanted to come for open rehearsals. There’s going to be times when you just come to have a seat on the sofa, use our Wi-Fi, have a cup of coffee, and enjoy the space. Part of the idea is that it’s not in use all of the time. You can just come and hang out.
How do you decide whether to book an out-of-town or an Ottawa act into the Fourth Stage?
A lot of my job is trying to bring in different audiences. That’s a really important mandate. It’s always “How do we get more people into the NAC? How do we make sure average Canadians feel the National Arts Centre is their space?” So we can’t do the same programming and work with the same community groups all the time. Part of my job is to make the building more accessible. You can’t just open a door and say people will come. People will come when they’re comfortable. I think sometimes people have felt this is not their space, that it is a space reserved for people who can afford high ticket prices. Now, for a lot of the new spaces, you don’t need a ticket to get in. So how do we become a public space, a public building? We’re naturally an intimidating space. I believe people want to be invited to something. I can put people like BlakDenim [an Ottawa fusion band of hip-hop, soul, and rock] to open at the Fourth Stage, but then I have to invite different communities to come to that show. My team goes out to community centres talking to people, getting them excited to come and see the space.
There have been changes to the way local groups can now book the Fourth Stage…
The NAC used to subsidize all individual artists and the small number of community groups who booked the Fourth Stage on a first-come, first-served basis. In order to allow greater access to all local artists – and diversify the offering of local performers – the NAC decided to rework the way it subsidizes local acts. Individual artists are subsidized to a greater level to give them greater access to our spaces. And although subsidized bookings to local community groups will be capped at four, overall they will have access to more spaces with professional technicians and top of the line equipment.
As a result, local artists now have access to four more stages that are more affordable than ever. In fact, our feedback from community groups (including the Ottawa StoryTellers) is that the some of the smaller venues – such as the 75-seat Alan and Roula Rossy Pavilion – fit their needs better. They are the right size for their audiences, they are cheaper and they are available when they need them.
In the end, we firmly believe there is more space at the National Arts Centre for local artist groups – at more affordable rates – than ever before in the history of the NAC.