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Banff Centre CEO: Alberta is the new arts hub

Mary Hofstetter, president and CEO of the Banff Centre, is an arts leader who frets as much about cougars in the backyard as bums in the seats. Both challenges are part of the job of running an eye-catching campus on the side of a mountain. Hofstetter, a career arts and education administrator, has headed the centre for 12 years as it stepped up its fundraising and defined itself as a place where the arts and business intersect. She is retiring from full-time work at the end of 2011 to live in Stratford, Ontario, making way for Jeff Melanson, who's been running the National Ballet School in Toronto.

Do you run an arts centre or an executive leadership academy? We always lead with the arts, which is at the heart of our DNA. But we do have a hybrid personality. We're an arts and culture institution, and we're a public postsecondary institution in Alberta. The federal government has also designated the centre as a national arts training institution.

Does that confuse people? If I have five minutes, I can give you a good sense of the centre. But if I'm riding in an elevator with you, it's a challenge. Nothing in the world has the diversity of 13 art forms, plus the leadership development and mountain environmental programming. There are also the conference and hospitality businesses that generate revenue to support the arts and artists here.

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But doesn't that create a fuzzy brand? People who come to a conference often don't have a sense of the whole institution that their dollars are supporting. We try to make connections so that they'll understand.

How do you do that? We describe our leadership programming as being "arts-based, nature-infused." The idea is to take advantage of our expertise in the creative process, apply it to business, and take lessons from the nature and unique environment here. It might mean bringing in theatre directors and poets and opera singers to work with business leaders, or having people go out on platforms high up in the trees on our ropes course to learn about teamwork and trust.

What's been your toughest lesson? It used to be that when I was given a bunch of tickets to sell to raise money, I'd just buy them myself and give them away, because I didn't really like asking people for money. I've got over that, big time. There were provincial cutbacks in the 1990s, and the Banff Centre was cut more than other institutions in that period. We had to rebuild the reputation, but the cutbacks had knocked the stuffing out of the place. My predecessor did some fine groundwork and I was able to build on that. For a while, though, we were in pretty fragile territory.

Did you have to learn about the oil and gas business to speak the language of Alberta donors and conference goers? Yes, to a certain degree. But some folks who live in that world really want to get away from it. They want to talk about arts and creativity, and how those things can help them in their businesses. Our people in leadership development are very adept at assisting them.

But isn't Alberta redneck country? Absolutely not. Alberta is leading the way in support for the arts. Take a look at the work being done in Calgary and Edmonton, and in centres like Rosebud [site of a rural theatre] Arts and culture are embedded in the ecology of Alberta. There's a huge generosity because the province can afford it right now. Alberta is rising to the occasion.

So what is your biggest piece of advice to Jeff Melanson? The Banff Centre cannot exist in isolation. It must continually seek collaboration and partnership to encourage the institution to evolve. We're just on the cusp of exploring how to use social media to take the Banff Centre out in the world. You still have to come here to truly experience the place, of course. But how can we reach out more?

You don't disclose your age. Can you give me a hint? Do you remember the story of Merlin, who decided that he was "youthening"? I have a lot in common with him. It's the invigorating mountain air. —Gordon Pitts

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About the Author
Senior Writer, Report on Business

Gordon Pitts is an author, public speaker and business journalist, with a focus on management, strategy, and leadership. He was the 2009 winner of Canada's National Business Book Award for his fifth book, Stampede: The Rise of the West and Canada's New Power Elite. More

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