Feature: Canada’s National Arts Centre – View the Past, See the Future
It is a renovation in three acts, one in which the National Arts Centre plays the leading role.
By Alje Kamminga
WHEN THE FINAL CURTAIN comes down—in February of 2018—visitors to the National Arts Centre (NAC) will discover a glittering entrance on Elgin Street, a magnificent glass atrium, enhanced performance spaces, public areas for education and events, and unparalleled views of the national capital’s iconic buildings and landmarks. In addition, they will find an expanded selection of services and amenities, as well as improved accessibility for people with mobility challenges.
For Nelson Borges, the NAC’s food and beverage general manager, the new and vastly improved National Arts Centre provides a dazzling location for social and business events. But while these most recent renovations are certainly welcome, he wants to point out that the NAC has long had a sterling reputation for its ability to stage successful events of all shapes and sizes.
“We’ve been fortunate,” says Borges. “Over the years, we’ve become known as a desirable location for special events, especially weddings and proms. And we’re proud of the fact that we accomplished that, not so much by advertising, but by positive reviews and word-of-mouth.” In fact, every year the NAC’s food and beverage division welcome more than 100,000 guests and hosts about 80 weddings.
And that was before the renovation.
Now, with increased space and additional resources, Borges says he expects to see a dramatic jump in all kinds of events. “Even with the renovations still underway, we’ve been getting inquiries like crazy.” The good news is that the newly renovated NAC will have plenty of space to accommodate all of them.
“When the Canada Room opens in February, we’ll be able to host three—possibly even four—weddings daily in that venue alone.” The Canada Room—made up of three smaller spaces called the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic rooms—will be created by demolishing the Panorama Room. With seating for 650, it definitely provides the space that NAC clients need and are looking for.
But, says Borges, it’s not so much what those people are looking for that will seal the deal, it’s what they’re looking at. “As excited as we are about our extra space and our superior services, what we’re really selling here is the view. Climb the grand staircase to the Canada Room, and you’ll find breathtaking views of the Rideau Canal and the capital’s premier landmarks, the Chateau Laurier and the Gatineau Hills.”
Thanks to the renovation, the magnificent views will extend well beyond the Canada Room. Essentially, the architects took a building that is largely made of concrete, which has been described in the past—on more than one occasion—as a bunker and turned it into a vivid collaboration of windows and light.
Mind you, visitors won’t have to look outside to appreciate what they’re looking at. The expanded and enhanced interior is already earning rave reviews. And it’s only going to get better.
Count Borges among those delighted by the NAC’s rejuvenated interior. “The renovation has literally doubled our pre-function space,” he says. “That, in turn, doubles our catering capacity. And that allows us to grow our business and helps the local economy by creating additional jobs.” Also, he says, it enables “us to expand our horizons.”
For Borges, expanding the NAC’s horizons means attracting more cultural and diplomatic events. “Years ago, we used to host the Viennese Ball. Now we’d love to get those kinds of events back into the building.” Actually, the NAC already hosts two of the most popular cultural events on the national capital calendar—the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards Gala in the spring and the NAC Foundation Gala in the fall. Thanks to the attendance of stars like Martin Short, Michael Bublé, and k.d. lang, says Borges, events like this bring glamour and a bit of Hollywood to the capital.
As for introducing more diplomatic events, the NAC has catering contracts with Global Affairs Canada and the Parliamentary Precinct to host various state visits and other events. Add its outreach to local government and the area’s community and the future looks bright indeed for what has emerged as one of the most desirable locations in the region.
As he discusses the progress made so far and contemplates the NAC’s promising future, Borges muses over what might have been: “I would have loved the additional space for this holiday season.” He smiles. “Of course, we will have it for next year.”
But the future will have its share of challenges.
“As welcome and as spectacular as this innovation is,” says Borges, “we’ve paid a price. Because of construction, business suffered as le café reduced its business hours and closed last summer. As a result, we lost some experienced people who went elsewhere for work. We also had to drastically reduce our catering operation. Again, we lost talented employees as well as long-time clients.”
While obviously a setback, Borges says the NAC looks at those events as an opportunity to rebuild, to attract new talent. “We’ve always been viewed as an incubator for culinary talent in this region. We’ll just have to begin that process anew.” This will be a top priority for the NAC’s newly hired executive chef Kenton Leier.
The National Arts Centre’s transformation also gives it the chance to return to a practice introduced by the former executive chef at the NAC, Kurt Waldele. “During his 31 years at the NAC, he emphasized Canadian foods and local produce,” says Borges. “As the NAC evolved, we drifted away from that a bit. Now we have an opportunity to right the ship. After all, we are a Canadian institution; it’s only right that we offer our guests Canadian food and wine.”
Canada’s National Arts Centre. The curtain has risen.