Al Cushing arrived in Whitehorse to get away from the big-city bureaucracy of the South.
After years of working as one of the top three officials at a major Calgary entertainment centre, Cushing said he was lured north by the prospect of having a more direct impact on the community.
“The ability to do things here, and get something done, and do something meaningful was a whole lot greater than it was in Calgary,” he said. “It wasn’t that you couldn’t do it there, it was just going to take a lot more out of you.”
He took the job as CEO of the Yukon Arts Centre and found what he was looking for. After nine years, he’s moving on to his next act.
Cushing will officially retire in March.
In a community the size of the Yukon, the arts centre is a hub for arts and culture. It’s a place that has gained national recognition and hosted world-renowned performers, but has also been the location for local CD releases and community burlesque shows.
Board chair Deb Bartlette calls the work done by the arts centre “a jewel in the crown” of the Yukon thanks in large part to Cushing’s leadership.
“He has really elevated the arts centre and given the arts centre a national profile, which has really helped to attract not only grants to bring in artists but the kind of really high calibre people (that perform).”
Though its stages have held major star power, the Yukon Arts Centre is still a community theatre.
About two years ago, staff conducted a survey of Yukoners.
“I think every person who grew up here did something here as a child or had a parent who did something here,” Cushing said. “So there’s that sense that this is our arts centre, it’s something that is part of us.”
While running an organization that has to be a bit of everything, Cushing himself has experience that covers many parts of the arts world. In more than four decades working in theatre across Canada, he’s been a stage technician, a technical director and a production manager. He ran his own theatre company and just prior to moving north was vice president of operations at the Epcor Centre in Calgary.
From his experience in Calgary, Cushing said he learned that a leader who tries to push projects through quickly will rarely get things accomplished.
“So when I came up here I said, ‘I’m not doing that. We’re going to have a good look down the road, we’re going to have the 10-year look, then we’ll get things done. They won’t happen overnight.’”
Years later, the list of things he’s accomplished is impressive.
Since arriving in the territory Cushing has guided the arts centre as it’s grown from a single theatre to multiple performance spaces, including the Old Fire Hall and Whitehorse’s wharf. For four years he led a major fundraiser to upgrade the sound system in the main theatre.
Last summer the arts centre helped open the Art House in Carcross in partnership with Carcross/Tagish First Nation, the Southern Lakes Artist Collective and the Carcross Tagish Management Corporation.
It’s a new place for local artists to sell their work and the first time the arts centre has had a physical location in the communities. About 10,000 people walked through the doors last summer.
Efforts to get out into the communities is something Cushing said he’s most proud of. The centre’s mandate is to be a Yukon arts centre, not just a Whitehorse one, he said. Two years ago, the centre hosted a Yukon Arts Summit and paid for 120 people from all over the territory to come and discuss arts in the Yukon.
“Some really good things came out of that process, for example the First Nations cultural centres had never actually been together in a room before. They created a mini-network.”
The plan is to run a second summit next year.
Under Cushing’s leadership, the arts centre has partnered on shows in Dawson and Haines Junction. Next week, along with Music Yukon, a community tour for a local artist is being organized in Watson Lake, Teslin and Carcross.
While Cushing admits he likely had a little to do with the arts centre’s success, he’s quick to credit the people around him.
“My main role is ensuring that everyone else can do what they do really well. I have an incredible staff, these are wonderful people who do wonderful work. What happens here is because they make it happen. I let them make it happen, that’s my job.”
The Yukon Arts Centre’s board of directors has formed a search committee to name the next CEO. Details of that are expected to be announced shortly.
So are details of Cushing’s upcoming retirement party.
But Yukoners need not worry — he said he has no plans to leave the territory anytime soon.
“God no. I love it up here, I’m staying put.”
Contact Ashley Joannou at firstname.lastname@example.org