The Sunday Magazine

Peter Herrndorf on his illustrious career in the arts

Former head of the National Arts Centre, Peter Herrndorf, talks about the rewards of a life in the arts, how he has pried funding from governments of all stripes, and why the CBC broke his heart.
Peter Herrndorf left his post as president and CEO of the National Arts Centre in June. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

This segment originally aired on March 4, 2018. 

Peter Herrndorf studied law and his first job was as a journalist for the CBC, but his lifelong passion has been for the arts. Over the course of his storied career, he has left an indelible mark on Canadian television, magazines, music, theatre, dance, film and arts education. 

He has sat on the boards of about sixty arts organizations, ranging from the Stratford Shakespearean Festival to the National Magazine Awards and the International Choral Festival. He is co-creator of the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards and, for the past two decades, he was the visionary president of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. 

The chair of the Centre describes Peter Herrndorf as "the most successful, influential and beloved leader in the performing arts in Canada."

During his tenure, the NAC — the premier artistic venue in the nation's capital — became accessible and relevant to Canadians across the country. 

Herrndorf joined The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright to talk about the rewards of a life in the arts, how he has pried funding from governments of all stripes, and why the CBC broke his heart. (Talin Vartanian/CBC)

In this feature interview with The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright, he talks about how he gave the NAC national purpose and prominence, and about his immense pride in the wealth of Canada's artistic talent. 

Herrndorf has always been a believer in the technique known as "managing by walking around."

"I still learn more today by sitting down to lunch in the green room at the National Arts Centre with a couple of stagehands, and having them explain why that show the night before didn't work very well, and why the one the week before did work," said Herrndorf.

"These are people who have an enormous amount to teach me and to teach everyone else working in the field, and the only way you can get that is by walking around ... listening to what they have to say. And it's one of the real pleasures of my job."

Several times during his career, he was hired to set things right when an organization was faltering. It happened at the CBC, Toronto Life magazine, TV Ontario and the NAC. Herrndorf is known for his uncanny ability to convince politicians to fund the arts, even when budgets are tight.

"I think people misread to some degree the way the Conservatives operated when they were in office. In fact, even though they didn't want to talk about it very much, the Conservatives were reasonably generous to the arts across the country. They were certainly very sympathetic to the National Arts Centre," said Herrndorf.

"I really felt that Stephen Harper didn't want to speak much about his support of the arts because it didn't particularly play well to his base."

Herrndorf on the staircase of the National Arts Centre main hall entrance, following the centre's $110.5 million architectural rejuvenation project. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)
Herrndorf started at the CBC as a reporter in Winnipeg. He eventually climbed the corporate ladder almost to the top, serving as vice president and general manager of English radio and television from 1979 to 1983. He was involved in the development of programs such as The Fifth Estate, 90 Minutes Live and The Journal. He also moved the national TV news from 11 to 10 p.m.

Herrndorf tells Michael his passion for the public broadcaster has never died, which is why the CBC is a subject that still makes him angry. He praises radio, but laments what has happened to CBC TV. 

"CBC television has always been much more ambiguous about its identity," said Herrndorf. "It varies from time to time about how much it's in the public broadcasting business and how much it's in the commercial broadcasting business." 

"My great hope for the CBC is that a future government of Canada says, 'Look, public broadcasting is so important to this country, particularly with a thousand channels and a digital world, that in fact we are going to allow the CBC to become non-commercial. We are going to make CBC television as distinctive, as unique, as high quality as CBC radio is.' And I believe that would be in Canada's interest."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.