Heather Gibson - Executive Producer National Arts Centre Presents

She/her - Originally from Manitoba, Heather Gibson built her career in the performing arts in Halifax where she graduated from Dalhousie University. She has done everything from run the Halifax Jazz Festival, to open her own club, to own an artistic management company. “I am excited by the prospect of building on the success of NAC Presents to build a larger audience for Canadian music,” said Heather Gibson.“Canadian artists are amongst the best in the world, and to be able to showcase them on a national stage will be very rewarding.” An active volunteer, Ms. Gibson has served as the Chair of the East Coast Music Association, member of the board for CAPACOA (The Canadian Arts Presenting Association), The Khyber Centre for the Arts, and The Western Roots Artistic Directors. Heather Gibson was the award-winning Executive Director of the Halifax Jazz Festival.

Heather and I met up for coffee on a very muggy day in July. We had planned on Skype-ing our interview, but as luck would have it, she was in Halifax for the weekend. We ended up talking for about an hour and a half about music, arts, and the local queer scene here in Nova Scotia since she lived and worked here for so long. Here is a segment of our conversation. 

{Jacob} - I’m curious about how you started in a science degree, moved to a history degree, and have ending up today with a successful career in arts management.

{Heather} - It had everything to do with my first girlfriend. I met her in second year, and in second year I failed organic chemistry.

{Jacob} - And failing chemistry was your sign?

{Heather} - No, but those two things are related! Her and failing chemistry. So, out of spite I took it again and got a B+. But when I called home to my mom, and told her I failed organic chemistry - I had never failed anything in my life - she said that I should just do what I enjoyed in university. She said to do what I enjoyed and I would get the marked that I needed to get to do what I wanted to do.

{Jacob} - Amazing advice. We should all receive that advice more.

{Heather} - And she was right. So I looked at my past courses and what I had enjoyed was this first year history course I had taken. So I switched, and I ended up with a history degree. But there was no relationship to getting into arts from history. But following that sentiment of doing what I enjoyed, I had stopped playing competitive sports when I moved out east. And instead I started doing a lot of student politics at Dalhousie University. The student union, board of governors, and I was the first Executive Director of the Women’s Centre. I started doing a lot of events with those guys. And then I got a job with the Heart and Stroke Foundation doing events. And things just got bigger and bigger. But like most Nova Scotians, I ended up having to make my own work. People in Nova Scotia are just struggling unlike basically anywhere else in this country. We’re scrappy. Eventually I was hired as the General Manager of Just In Time Theatre. And then somewhere through that I became the promotions director for Reflections Cabaret in Halifax, back when it was really gay.

{Jacob} - Because, you’re right, it really isn’t anymore.

{Heather} - No. So that added a whole other element of drag queens and live music and a mix of performances. And through that I began managing the Khyber Centre for the Arts. At the Khyber I met all these up and coming performers like Rose Cousins, Jill Barber, Tanya Davis, and Amelia Curran. So then, through meeting them, we started this festival called In The Dead Of Winter which was a singer songwriter festival that still runs today. And so, through all of that I gained a lot of experience with emerging artists.

{Jacob} - Then in the midst of this you also took over as ED of the Halifax Jazz Festival?

{Heather} - Yes, which was a huge job. And also in that same timeframe we started the Company House - which became a queer space in the city and a live art and music venue. And then also in there, I became the chair of the East Coast Music Awards which added a different flavour to things as well. So I think all of the different things I did mean I have the job I have now with the National Arts Centre.

{Jacob} - And you’re the second person to do that job correct? Simone Deneau started it and you’ve taken over in the past couple years.

{Heather} - I knew her because I worked as a booking agent for some of the acts that she would book for the NAC presents. And then when she decided to leave, the NAC CEO kept saying that they were looking for someone with experience in the commercial music industry and for someone who is entrepreneurial. And maybe not surprisingly, from that scrappiness we talked about, over half of the directors at the NAC come from the east coast.

{Jacob} - The NAC holds such a special place in the Canadian arts identity, too. Anglophone and Francophone. It is such an integral part of arts creation in this country. When you took this job, you said that one of your goals was to have the NAC be a space for everyone. A place for the people who have been going for decades to the opera or to the orchestra, but also for people who have never been before. That an open door to the Arts Centre is just the first step.

{Heather} - Yes. Well, there are a few facets to my job. One of them is NAC Presents, which is the songwriters area of the NAC. The other part that I take care of rentals. And I feel like we need to curate rentals. Just because you have the money doesn’t mean you get the space. There are things that we’ve moved from more public spaces to corporate spaces. More into the boardroom. I also run this mandate called “Public Spaces” and I think that is the area that has evolved the most. When we opened the new building, adding 70,000 feet of NAC space, we wanted to break open the front door. All the research we have is that there are certain people who won’t come to the NAC. The research also tells us that our audience has always largely been straight and white - 99.5% white, cis, affluent. There are all kinds of Canadians who have certain barriers. It might be price, or a past experience. There are people of colour, new Canadians, queer Canadians - people who we don’t see as often. Part of my job is to make sure those people who have always come to the NAC have a space, but to expand that so we also make room for everyone else.

{Jacob} - And what does that look like?

{Heather} - We’re doing a significant amount of free programing. Family programming - Toddler Tuesdays where they can learn to air-cello - you can also just come into the NAC now and use your laptop, get on the wifi and work. The idea is not that you come to the free afternoon dance class and then buy a ticket to the orchestra, but more that the NAC is for all Canadians. If you end up buying a ticket to a show, that’s great, but it is more about allowing all Canadians to use that space. So we also have Ottawa’s first, fully non-gendered bathrooms. The rooms are all behind one shared door. And we spent hours getting the signage right. We put two washrooms on the orchestra level that have adult change tables in them. To go to a show that is over two hours long and not have a space for adults who need that changing table is something we needed to fix. How can we make it a better experience for those who are visually impaired? We took out every pronoun from every internal and public form and the ushers no longer greet people with gendered pronouns. But the good-will in the leadership is amazing. There is nothing that we haven’t been able to do.

{Jacob} - I’m sure you’ve read a lot about festivals and concerts lately that have abysmal representation in their artists. That every headliner is a white male group or solo act. As someone who programs and curates songwriters at the nations headline stage, how do you think festivals and stages can do better?

{Heather} - If you look at something the size of Ottawa Blues Fest, or Festival d’été, there are very few women who are at the level, that draw the crowds, to fill those seats. So I don’t look so much at the headliners, but I look at the rest of their list. Each of those festivals, that receive significant public funding, if they can’t get Pink on the mainstage they need to have an inordinate number of women in the secondary role. They need to contribute and support the industry so that there isn’t just one Pink in five or ten years, but there are ten. We need to make sure those women are on the B and C stages now, getting that festival on their resume, getting backstage and meeting who they need to meet to grow their career.

Agents sign on artists they think they can sell. And they think they can sell them because we’ve bought something like them before. And what we saw during Canada 150, was this rise in indigenous voices in Canada. And so agents are now saying they want more indigenous artists on the roster because everyone wants them. So now, there are more indigenous artists with burgeoning careers and who have representation. They have managers and agents. Those pieces are really important. So it is slowly starting to change.

{Jacob} - Have you experienced artists or administrators who are hesitant to identify as queer or indigenous or as any minority? If things are slowly changing, is it becoming less and less of a branding hurdle to jump?

{Heather} - Its a business where people are concerned with how you look, sound, and identify. In Canada, there are a few women who are out, but almost no men. There are lots of artists who are just not out, but there are very few who are out. And it is an entirely personal journey for artists. They are so concerned with what people think of them. That is of course unfortunate. On the administrative side, I am the only out lesbian at this level of the music industry. There are some in theatre, film, and dance. But I don’t even know that there are many men either at this level. There are certainly some young, up and coming, queer people in the industry, but I think they are fighting battles that they didn’t even see coming.

{Jacob} - Like what?

{Heather} - It’s a business of network. People introduce people to one another. There are things that I go to that I don’t see them at. You do business with people you know. And unfortunately the system we have, when someone walks in and is vocal about being out and queer, it does turn some people off. I don’t know really why I was able to break through. I wasn’t afraid to take risks, but I get along with people. But I had mentors. People who took me to everything. Introduced me to people.

{Jacob} - You use lesbian as an identifier. I always used gay and up until about two years ago that was my only term. I’ve since switched over to queer almost entirely. Do you ever use queer in relation to yourself?

{Heather} - I don’t. I’ll use it when talk about other people who I don’t know what they use, or if I’m talking in general terms, but I’ve always called myself a lesbian. I don’t think it needs to be as black and white though anymore. I’m starting to hear lesbians refer to themselves as lesbian-plus...For such a long time there was only lesbian and gay, and we have this dark period in our past where we completely shunned bisexual people and trans people. I think it’s great that different groups in our community are finding their voice. Like, right now trans people are finding their voice. It’s great. What we need to make sure we’re doing though is not discarding or denying others. That is counterintuitive to the community I know. The community I know says that we all get to sit at the table together and be heard. We all get to have a discourse and your opinion is just as interesting as anyone else. At the heart of our community, we are kind and well-meaning individuals. We have a resilience and a natural support for each other. And some us have a defensiveness because of what we’ve been through, but none of that boils down to the fact that you and I are sitting down to a conversation and I meaningfully say something hurtful. And it may mean that you need to have a kindness toward me because I’ve said something not quite right. We will get back to the point where we have more open arms to the diversity in our own community.