Arts Club Theatre's search for new leadership prompts debate

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      With an annual budget of $15 million and three repertory stages, Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre is Western Canada’s largest regional theatre. As its artistic managing director of 45 years, Bill Millerd, exits for a well-deserved retirement, the selection of his replacement is one of the arts sector’s most anticipated announcements. And it’s being monitored and debated with passion.

      The timing of the Arts Club’s leadership transition makes it particularly open to scrutiny. The national performing-arts sector is in a period of intense discussion and soul-searching over what’s been called the “white-guy shuffle”: a series of hires within the last 18 months that have placed white, middle-aged men at the helm of theatre companies across the country. On January 15, the Toronto Fringe Festival and Generator hosted an #UrgentExchange panel discussion to the topic, titled “The White Guy Shuffle: How can we change hiring practices in Canadian theatre?”. The topic was also discussed in a January 25 Toronto Star article by Karen Fricker, which noted that three out of the seven vacant artistic-director positions in Canada filled by white men in 2016 had previously been held by white women. Included among these was Vancouver’s Touchstone Theatre, where Roy Surette, who had previously held the AD position at Touchstone from 1984 to 1997, took over from Katrina Dunn.

      “It’s really incumbent upon it [the Arts Club hiring committee] to make sure that they are aware of the national concern that is surrounding this whole idea of cultural diversity in leadership positions and cultural institutions in Canada,” Brenda Leadlay, the Alliance for Arts and Culture’s executive director, urged in a phone call with the Straight. “There definitely is a frustration that board members [in the sector] don’t seem to be very well informed around the need for cultural diversity in leadership positions in cultural institutions in Canada.”

      Further focusing attention on the Arts Club’s impending hire is what some describe as a lost opportunity to engage the theatre community in the hiring process. When the Straight sat down with the Arts Club’s executive director, Peter Cathie White, at the company’s new Olympic Village headquarters, he confirmed that the selection committee consists of him and seven members of the Arts Club board—a board consisting largely of individuals affiliated with the financial, banking, and mining industries. No theatre artists have been invited to join the hiring committee, a move that has raised eyebrows in the arts community.

      In a statement to the Arts Club board and shared with the Straight, Studio 58 artistic director Kathryn Shaw expressed her concerns. “I feel it is imperative to have at least two theatre artists on the selection committee who are familiar with the Vancouver theatre community and understand the importance of the artistic contribution the Arts Club makes to the health of our theatre culture,” she wrote. “I know this view is shared by my colleagues and your choice will have more credibility if artists are included in the hiring process.”

      In its defence, the Arts Club’s Cathie White noted that the company held consultations with the theatre community to help determine the selection criteria for the new artistic director. “We’ve heard from 28 leaders in the artistic community on what values of an artistic director for the Arts Club they feel are important, and the qualities and the artistic direction of the company moving forward,” he stressed. “We also had a process where any artist or anyone in the community could send us their feedback…and those voices are definitely being heard on the committee side.…We’re a large artistic institution in the city, so I certainly feel that we really were open with our artistic consultation and the process.”

      Alliance for Arts and Culture executive director Brenda Leadlay sees a need for diversity in leadership.

      As for the decision not to include theatre artists on the selection committee, “it came down to ‘Who do you choose as that artist?’ We didn’t want to have one artistic voice or two artistic voices,” Cathie White said.

      That explanation doesn’t satisfy Shaw. She explained, via email, that she was “invited to speak, along with a group of other Vancouver theatre artists, to a representative from the recruiting firm conducting the initial phase of the AD hiring process.…The panel was asked five pertinent questions regarding our opinions about what was important in selecting the new artistic director of the Arts Club. While I appreciated this consultation, it does not in my view replace having practising, informed theatre artists on the selection committee.”

      The exclusion of artists from the hiring committee also runs counter to the way most organizations operate nowadays, according to Kim Selody, artistic director of Presentation House Theatre and a past theatre officer for the Canada Council for the Arts. In a phone conversation with the Straight, Selody noted that the inclusion of theatre artists on the hiring committee is about more than finding the right candidate—it can also help ensure that the incumbent is welcomed by the arts community.

      “Generally, the practice is that arts organizations…encourage a member of the artistic community to be part of the search committee for a couple of reasons,” Selody explained. “One of the obvious ones is that when they hire outside of the region, the artistic director has usually met someone through the search committee who’s connected to the community, which is a good introduction. And that person usually becomes a bit of an ambassador for the hire, and it allows people to understand.”

      The Arts Club is working with the consulting firm Alexander Whitehead Executive Search. This, says Selody, is an indication that the company could be looking at bringing an outsider into the local scene. “If you’re planning on hiring people who apply for the job locally, then why would you spend the $25,000 on a headhunting firm? They’re not cheap,” he noted. “That’s a clue that I have.…So how are you going to deal with their relationship with the community? Maybe you should have put somebody on the search committee from the community to help with that.”

      The appointment of outsiders to lead Canadian theatre companies has also been raising concerns nationally—British director Tim Carroll’s appointment to helm Ontario’s Shaw Festival in August 2015, for example, was not universally welcomed. But the Arts Club’s primary focus, said Cathie White, is to look close to home. “We’re a local-focused company, so a Canadian is our priority,” he said. “This is a very big Canadian opportunity for an artistic directorship. I wouldn’t say that we would discount any international applications, not that I’m aware of any, but in our strategic priorities, a local focus is stated. For us, a Canadian is a priority.”

      What isn’t in question is the critical importance of the Arts Club to the theatre scene in Vancouver and beyond. “It commissions a huge amount of new work from local artists,” Marcus Youssef, artistic director of Neworld Theatre, pointed out over the phone. “It’s a huge employer and it has a tremendous influence on the cultural ecology here.…It’s a really critical piece of infrastructure. As a catalyst, as an employer, as a leader, as an advocate, as an enabler, it’s really critical.”

      Whoever steps into the space left by Bill Millerd will have a big job ahead of them, as Joyce Rosario, associate curator with the PuSh Festival, noted during a phone call. “Bill Millerd’s been there at the Arts Club longer than I’ve been alive, and I think that probably goes for a lot of the theatre community. To think that that position can be filled by a single person—I wonder if they’ve made any changes to how the organization is structured to kind of account for that.…Certainly, the issues of having to step in after a founder, those are some very, very huge shoes to fill.”

      Rosario says she hopes to see the Arts Club buck the “white-guy shuffle” trend and follow in the footsteps of Theatre Calgary, which appointed Asian Canadian Stafford Arima as artistic director this past March. “It [diversity] is very important to me, as it should be,” said Rosario. “Look at the demographics of our city, and then look at the demographics of arts leadership in the city, and there’s a disconnect. That’s a fact. And across the country, and it’s an issue nationally. It’s a big conversation that’s happening not just amongst diverse and indigenous communities. I think we’re finally having that conversation as a community at large.”

      The theatre community should know soon how far the Arts Club will move that conversation forward. Cathie White says a shortlist of applicants will be assembled by the end of this month, and an announcement is anticipated at the end of this season.

      “It’s a time of exciting change, I think, for the Arts Club,” said Cathie White, adding: “Change is tough.”