Robert Fulford's column about Toronto culture's sad lack of leaders

(The National Post, April 29, 2000)

The three big performing arts companies in Toronto are plagued this season by a variety of troubles, but they have one grave problem in common: all of them suffer from severe leadership deficit.

They are all in trouble mainly because the business class of the city has utterly failed to provide the vision, initiative and drive that the performing arts desperately need from their supporters. Our major companies are crippled by the absence of inspired leaders who know how to raise money, who understand what it takes to get a building up, and who have the courage to risk their reputations for the sake of creating something great.

Instead, what these institutions do best is complain that the government won't sufficiently support them. They've turned whining into their own special art form, and even those who agree with them have been hoping for a long time that they'll learn a new tune.

It hasn't always been this way. A century ago, or even half a century ago, a few Toronto businessmen saw the need for cultural leadership and filled it. But in recent times, while Toronto's artists and performers have reached new levels of excellence, our local philanthropists have ceased to measure up.

The city's business leaders have more money than ever before, and they operate in a richer economic environment. But as a class they are far less impressive than the leaders who presided over the creation of Toronto's cultural institutions. The earnest, well-intentioned people who sit on our cultural boards today tend to be defensive, frightened, provincial and small-minded. They are mainly bookkeepers rather than dreamers. Everyone needs bookkeepers, but we can't expect them to create great institutions.

Traditionally, the board of the National Ballet of Canada has set a fine example of serious long-term commitment combined with ambition and imagination. Over five decades they have been a far-sighted lot; if they hadn't been, the company might have perished long ago. But today, faced by the grotesque Kimberly Glasco case, the board has apparently decided that their wisest course is to retreat from public view. The responsibility of representing the company has fallen on the shoulders of James Kudelka, the artistic director who has been ordered by a judge to cast a dancer he doesn't want to cast.

Kudelka has been forced to defend the company, its principles, and his own long-established (and until now assumed) rights as artistic director. This is wrong and unfair. He has been left naked and alone to deal with a situation unique in the history of professional arts companies.

An artistic director should not be required to serve as legal expert and public relations man. A responsible board would have long-ago formed a protective shield around him, suggested that he get on with his regular work, and then knuckled down to articulate forcefully the company's position. That's hard. It's scary, and it's uncomfortable. But it's what leaders do.

Instead, Kudelka finds himself arguing a ludicrous issue. He, not Glasco, is the victim here. She's got the last years of a career to worry about; he's got the standards of a whole institution to maintain. If he suddenly accepts an offer from Australia and walks away from this hideous embarrassment, no one in the whole vast world of ballet will blame him for a minute -- and no one of real stature will be willing to replace him. His determination may now be all that's standing between the National Ballet and complete disaster. Is it conceivable that one dancer, one labour lawyer and one judge could together pull down what has been, over the years, our most impressive performing arts company?

It now looks like at least a distant possibility.

Richard Bradshaw, artistic director of the Canadian Opera Company, has found himself trying to fill a similar leadership vacuum. In the controversy over building a Toronto opera house, he has felt called upon to make the arguments that the board should be making. Bradshaw has greatly improved programming and raised standards; he has made the COC a company that deserves a proper home. But he shouldn't be expected to promote the opera house as well as demonstrate what he's going to put into it. In fact, he's quite the wrong person to be fronting the campaign. He has no roots in the community, he doesn't understand the subtleties of Canadian funding, and (at least in print) he has an unfortunately condescending tone that seems likely to erode support not only for the opera house but also for opera.

As for the Toronto Symphony, it has somehow slipped below the level of the city's radar. This matters to all of us: a city with a good symphony is automatically a better city, musically. Ideally, it sets standards, generates interest in music, and provides a home for many of the best teachers as well as the best orchestral players. Its effects are felt in every corner of the local musical world.

But that hasn't been true of the Toronto Symphony in decades. Somehow, the board has allowed the orchestra to vacate its central position and become just another attraction, sometimes good, sometimes not so good. Conductors come and go, and the downward spiral continues, suggesting that the problem is with the board; Jukka-Pekka Saraste's recently announced decision to give up his position as conductor when his contract ends signalled yet another failed attempt to create a sense of continuity and lift both the profile and the quality of the orchestra. For most of us, the symphony no longer evokes feelings of civic ownership. When the musicians went on strike, the city yawned.

Today, Toronto's achievements in the large-scale performing arts do not begin to equal its economic status or its population. That was also the way it looked a century ago, when Toronto was becoming a city and a few business leaders were deciding to leave it richer than they found it. We owe to their energy and determination some of our major cultural institutions.

The great figure was Sir Edmund Walker, a country boy who rose from a clerk's job to the presidency of the Canadian Bank of Commerce. In the first decades of the 20th century, he was the city's chief cultural philanthropist: He created what is now the Art Gallery of Ontario and played a leading part in founding the Royal Ontario Museum. He chaired the University of Toronto board in its first great period of expansion and consolidation. He was a dominant figure in founding the National Gallery of Canada.

In roughly the same era, the Massey family donated two buildings that became crucial to Toronto culture for generations -- Massey Hall, built in 1894, and Hart House, on the University of Toronto campus, in 1919. Half a century later, Floyd Chalmers, a journalist who made a fortune as head of Maclean-Hunter, established himself as an imaginative and ambitious cultural philanthropist. In the 1960s he devoted much of his money and time to getting the Canadian Opera Company started. He raised the funds to build a theatre for the Stratford Festival, so that it could move out of the tent where it began.

It is the absence of citizens like Walker, the Masseys, and Chalmers that currently afflicts our big arts companies.

Many years ago Dennis Lee, the Toronto poet, wrote a book called Kingdom of Absence. That's the melancholy kingdom in which many of our best performers now live.

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