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‘Godfather of Canadian Arts’ to receive Peter Herrndorf Arts Leadership Award

Peter Herrndorf has enjoyed a lengthy and industrious career as a journalist, businessman and champion of the arts, and the award speaks to his deep commitment and lasting legacy.

Tony Hauser

Peter Herrndorf, the "godfather of Canadian arts," laughs when asked what it's like to get an award that is named after him.

"It feels kind of strange, actually, but it feels terrific," says Herrndorf, president and CEO of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, who will receive the Peter Herrndorf Arts Leadership Award on Oct. 27. "The best thing about it is that Business for the Arts will be giving an award for arts leadership from here on in, every year, to people across the country … for leaders and professionals for doing the kind of work that they love."

The 75-year-old Order of Canada Officer is being modest, of course. Herrndorf has enjoyed a lengthy and industrious career as a journalist, businessman and champion of the arts, and the award speaks to his deep commitment and lasting legacy.

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Herrndorf joined the CBC in 1965, and was instrumental in developing the fifth estate and various Emmy Award-winning documentary specials. By 1979, he returned to Toronto as vice-president and general manager of the CBC's English Language radio and TV networks. (He's the guy who moved The National newscast to 10 p.m.)

When he left the CBC in 1983, he became publisher of Toronto Life magazine, helping it achieve record earnings before moving on to a CEO position at TVOntario in 1992. In 1998, the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television gave him an award for his lifetime contribution to Canadian broadcasting.

He began his tenure as president and CEO of the NAC in 1999, ushering in a new age of innovation. Plagued with growing pains for many years, the centre was restored to national relevance under Herrndorf's watch. He was instrumental in turning its fortunes around, too, raising upward of $100-million for the company and keeping it in the black. Today he's on too many boards to name, but is notably a director of Luminato, Toronto's Festival of Arts and Creativity.

But he still acts as if this award is, well, all too kind.

"I think that individuals and families and corporations can make a tremendous contribution to the arts through philanthropy and sponsorship," he says, explaining how funding for Canadian arts has evolved over the past 40 years.

From his vantage point, homegrown arts funding now exists somewhere between the European model (which is government-focused) and the U.S. model (private sector-focused). "I'm biased," he says, "but it's the best of both worlds."

And he believes the arts have flourished in Canada because of it.

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"I mostly have hopes for the future," says Herrndorf, when pressed for comment about what challenges lie ahead for Canada's arts sector. "I hope that Canada continues to invest in artists – both emerging and established artists – and continues to support the great not-for-profit companies we have all across the country. We have so much talent in this country."

Give us a chance on a level playing field, he adds, and we can take on the best of the world. "No doubt in my mind about that."

The Peter Herrndorf Award will be given out at the 2015 Canadian Arts and Business Awards, held at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto on Oct. 27 (performance.rcmusic.ca).

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