With the recent firing of the board and appointment of a new administrator at the Banff Centre, observers have been drawing a direct comparison to the provincial government’s approach to Alberta Health Services (AHS) and wondering about the future of this once-celebrated cultural institution.
But the truth is this type of drastic action is long overdue.
It’s a much-needed “reset” for an institution that lost its way, and one can only hope it isn’t too late to save the good bits, say goodbye to the bad, and reclaim the centre as the beacon of art, creativity and bold ideas that it used to be. Once you peel back its glitzy galas and long list of cultural icons who visited its mountainside campus, the Banff Centre’s true heartbeat can be found in the back of a horse-drawn carriage — where, in the 1930s, actors and dramaturges toured Alberta communities, believing that their creativity was the cure for a citizenry exhausted by economic upheaval and war.
Outside the arts sector, the centre had become a poster child for a non-profit truly embracing social enterprise. With so many other arts organizations facing declines in donations and sponsorships, Banff used its biggest asset — its 40-plus acres atop Tunnel Mountain — to build a successful hotel and conference business. Today, its largest facility is not a space dedicated to the arts, but a dark grey, monolithic conference centre better suited to an airport expansion project than an arts campus.
But behind the scenes, particularly in the past decade, those working in arts education have long shaken our heads, because so much of the centre’s valuable work in supporting and showcasing emerging artists appeared to become secondary to the pursuit of private dollars. Recent media coverage of the firing of its board only provides further proof of this concern, with its governors embroiled in a debate about whether its next CEO should come from the arts or the hospitality sector. Good grief.
Much like the news around the province’s plans to break apart AHS, it’s time to break apart the Banff Centre. It needs to spin off its hotel and conference business and its assets so that the private sector can do what it does best.
The centre can then focus on what it does best: leaning into its mandate as an advanced place of learning for the arts. It can then start to revitalize its dated arts-learning facilities and reposition itself as an incubator of thought and creativity.
With its annual non-conference revenues averaging $28 million, along with a healthy endowment fund of $45 million, the centre has the financial capacity, the donor base and still some level of public goodwill to make this happen. Many organizations — including the one I lead — would give much to have this kind of infrastructure, yet continue to do nationally impactful work for less than a 10th of the resources.
More than 90 years have passed since the founding of the centre, and it looks like history is beginning to repeat itself. Economic upheaval, war and a polarized political discourse is dividing our communities like never before. The Banff Centre proved, almost a century ago, that the arts can be a medium for healing and bringing communities back together, and I believe it has the mandate — a responsibility — to demonstrate that once again.
If this isn’t the time to make the hard decision to return to its founding purpose, then I don’t know what is.
Jung-Suk (JS) Ryu is the president and CEO of the National accessArts Centre, Canada’s largest disability arts organization.