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New director impressed with Yukon Arts Centre

The Yukon Arts Centre is leading a new generation of Canadian performance spaces that nurture artists and the arts community, said the centre’s…
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The Yukon Arts Centre is leading a new generation of Canadian performance spaces that nurture artists and the arts community, said the centre’s new executive director.

Performing arts centres belong to one of several generations, said Al Cushing, who takes over management of the arts centre in March.

 First, centres had been built solely to house a symphony or a theatre — simply a ‘place,’ he said.

Then performing arts centres were used for urban renewal projects to improve the core of crumbling downtown spaces.

The Yukon Arts Centre is part of the latest generation, said Cushing.

“What’s happening now — and the Yukon is one of the leaders in the country — is that art centres are used as a catalyst for creative energy in the community,” said Cushing.

Arts centres do this through outreach programs and arts learning, and creating a creative environment for people in cultural industries and business, he added.

The community involvement of the arts centre is what initially attracted Cushing, 58, to the job, and it’s something he wants to focus on when he starts his job next year.

Citing urban theorist Jane Jacobs, Cushing said a vibrant arts community will have a trickle down effect, attracting more artists and innovative business people.

“Any community will benefit if this creative energy is turned loose, whether that’s through architecture or an arts centre,” he said.

Currently vice-president of operations at Calgary’s EPCOR Centre, a performance complex with five stages, Cushing visited the Yukon in late September as part of his interview.

Impressed with the past work of the arts centre, Cushing was more impressed with the community, which played a large role his acceptance of the job.

“We didn’t feel like we were welcomed to the community, we felt like we were coming home,” said Cushing.

“That’s extraordinary. I don’t think that could happen anywhere else.”

Before settling in Calgary, Cushing said he lived a typically Canadian life, travelling and working across the country.

He started his theatre career as a stage manager in Vancouver. Moving to Ottawa, he founded his own theatre company and worked at the National Arts Centre.

Then he hauled west to Alberta for five years, then back east to Winnipeg to work at the Manitoba Theatre Centre.

“My career started the same as with many people in the business: acting, managing, tech direction, production, then a slide up to facility management,” said Cushing.

The Yukon Arts Centre is making itself a model for similar facilities across Canada because of the laudable strategic plan and the enthusiasm behind it, he said.

Several points stood out when Cushing read the plan and talked to people in the cultural industry in the Yukon.

Taking artists out of the Yukon and across Canada, while bringing in artists from other provinces would be a great educational opportunity, he said.

The desire to build partnerships between government, artists and business is healthy, and has put the arts centre in leadership role with the cultural industry of the North, he added.

On his first visit to Whitehorse, Cushing toured the arts centre. The performance space and the gallery impressed him.

“It’s well thought out,” he said.

Already, he has identified what could be improved. Some equipment could be upgraded and the lobby still has room to grow, said Cushing.

Out of 22 applicants, Cushing stood out because of his combination of management skills and extensive theatre background, said Joan Stanton, an arts centre board member who sat on the hiring committee.

Cushing’s desire for deepening the centre’s influence in the community is a nice fit, added Stanton.

“He has a maturity about him,” said Stanton. “His depth of experience and knowledge of running an arts facility and working with artists and presenters made him well qualified.”

He has a three-year contract with a salary “comparable to other senior management positions in government,” said Stanton.

Cushing will be responsible for the overall management of the arts centre, including staffing, budget and programming.

While at the EPCOR Centre, Cushing was instrumental in writing a new management and operations plan that will see that arts centre through 2010.

Initially, the relationship between the centre’s management and its residents — theatre companies and other performing arts groups — was acrimonious. The Calgary arts groups believed management to be landlords there to simply take care of day to day business.

With a new a plan in place, the two sides have a better working relationship that includes the arts groups in more policy planning and programming, said Cushing.

“It’s a not a change we made overnight,” he said.

“Now it doesn’t mean we’re just telling people what to do. The biggest challenge was changing that attitude.”

Cushing will be in Whitehorse in late November to meet more people in the arts community to familiarize himself with the scene and the arts centre operations.