The Evolution of Presenting Practice

- By Brian McCurdy

Two Years ago at an Ontario Presents retreat in Brantford, we started a dialogue about the future of presenting in Canada. To borrow a well-worn concept from the computer industry, I started to develop this concept of Presenting 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 to describe the evolution that I was seeing in the presenting field over the last 20 years.

Presenting 1.0

Presenting 1.0 was where the field was 20 years ago, although we can certainly find presenters still functioning solely in this mode. The only programming criteria was solely transactional, “Will this show I am bringing in make money”. Indeed many of our authorizers in the Municipal administration did and still do take this approach. Artists sole involvement with the community was to arrive the day of the show, perform and leave town. Rentals of the theatre by community performing groups were driven by the same transactional model of, “If you have the money and we have the date, we have a deal.” Success was solely defined by bums in seats and performance profit.

Presenting 2.0

Many performing arts centres have evolved to presenting 2.0, presenting choices evolved from looking at strictly the financial implications and became more mission driven. Artistic vision became the driving force behind programming decision making and the word “curator” was borrowed from the museum world to better describe the decision making process. Curator evolved from Medieval Latin cūrātus,”one responsible for the care (of souls)” which I think is an apt description of the responsibility. 

Important work was presented and some exciting challenging work was brought to the community. Work became contextualized through pre and post performance discussions with the artists or a local knowledgeable speaker. Master-classes, special school performances and workshops were introduced, expanding the impact on the community by touring artists by having them in the community for longer period of time. Although for the most part, rentals to local groups remained in the standard transactional model, there was discussion about the potential need to “curate” rentals to better manage the inventory of dates available and to better meet the needs of the community.

Presenting 3.0

Many municipal performing arts centres are currently functioning in the 2.0 mode, but there are some interesting experiments going on as the field tries to evolve to presenting 3.0. The 3.0 model is a profound shift in the way Performing Arts Centres and their presenting programs have functioned in the past. To put it as simply as possible, this is an evolution from the transactional business model to that of a community cultural developer. Performing Arts Centres in a municipally supported environment have a unique mandate that is different than facilities that are run by the private sector, Universities, or managed by non-profit producing organizations who are the facility’s major users. 

Municipal Performing Arts Centres as Community Cultural Developer

In the 3.0 model, municipally supported performing arts centres fulfill the role of cultural developer in their communities, curating and developing presenting seasons that bring cultural offerings not met either by commercial rentals or local performing groups. There is the recognition that municipally supported Performing Arts Centres must begin to play a larger role in supporting the development of local performing arts organizations and artists.

Current Challenges for Municipal Performing Arts Centres

As aforementioned, municipally supported Performing Arts Centres have traditionally functioned in a strictly transactional business model, driven by the financial ability of the renter to meet theatre expenses combined with date availability. In addition to their presenting programs, most municipally supported centres have built their performing arts rental activities around three key focuses: local professional performing groups, touring professional groups and local amateur performing arts organizations. 

Local professional performing arts organizations; especially in classical music, are under increasing stress. In the past year, solely in Ontario, opera companies in Ottawa and Hamilton have declared bankruptcy, as well as orchestras in London; and earlier in the decade, Hamilton. Many symphonies have been the major tenants of regional municipal performing arts centres. We are also seeing that many local amateur organizations are also experiencing problems of declining audiences and organizational stress. Local amateur theatre, the bulwark of much mid sized municipal PAC’s activities; is seeing a dramatic decline in participation of volunteer boards, actors and production personnel due to an aging leadership and increased demands on the time of young people. Their longer term viability must be considered as questionable. Many other performing musical groups are facing the same challenges of volunteerism and an aging leadership and audiences, resulting in a decreasing number of performances over the course of the year. 

Clearly, this old transactional model is breaking down and no longer meets community cultural developmental needs. In the 3.0 model, a more creative approach will be necessary.  

Role of Community Cultural Developer

As many of the traditional performing arts organizations are declining, a grass roots entrepreneurial category of aspiring professional artists and small independent arts organizations that are critical to the cultural development of a community are developing. 

In the 3.0 model, municipally supported performing arts centres must take the lead in supporting the growth of these types of organizations as part of their municipal mandate. At their current state of development, these groups are unable to afford the high costs of facility rentals and their attendant production costs, and so a more flexible and creative partnership is necessary to support this critical type of community cultural development. The big challenge, is to scale up these organizations to make them viable and sustainable for the long run while making a more significant community contribution and enable artists to make a living as a professional artist. 

Municipal Centres also need to take a more active role in supporting local organizations through marketing support and creating more targeted artistic development initiatives. A mix of events that include rental activity of both a community and commercial nature, the presentation of performances in the Centres’ presenting programs and support of professional local artists. This will offer the broadest spectrum of programming, ensuring participation, engagement and involvement by the community. 

Education Partner – Engagement

In presenting 2.0, most Municipal performing arts centres played a key role in community engagement and educational activities. Developing comprehensive K to 20 education programs including special school performances, workshops, master classes, industry mentorship, and so on. These activities have long been a staple of municipal 2.0 presenting programs. In addition, Adult educational opportunities through post performance talk backs, pre-performance lectures provided additional contextual information for audiences.

In Presenting 3.0, while all the 2.0 activities will continue and intensify; Municipally supported Performing Arts Centres will also be a resource to help engage with community issues where the arts can provide a unique point of access. Some programming choices will be made to present work that directly addresses community issues and as a result, intensive community engagement activities will be built around these presentations. 

Community Engagement

Whether dealing with mental health, immigration, bullying, issues of tolerance, homophobia, youth or diversity; the arts can be a tool in addressing these community priorities through alignment with artistic works that explore these issues. 

Building partnerships with other social service organizations in the community will also expand the impact of an arts experience to an in depth community conversation with positive and wide ranging impact where the arts can be a catalyst for community change.

Alignment to Culture Plans

Greater alignment with Municipal Culture Plans must be part of the 3.0 model. Culture Plans should provide the policy framework that municipal performing arts centres and presenting programs should be aligned with. With 69 Municipal Culture Plans across the Province approved by their respective communities, practically every municipally supported performing arts centre has a Culture Plan.

Unless Municipal Performing Arts Centres are more fully aligned, they remain vulnerable to budget cutbacks, or regression to solely profit programming of the 1.0 model. Conversely, Culture plans will never be fully successful if the largest cultural investment in the community, the Performing Arts Centre, is not fully engaged in implementing the Culture Plan.

While most Culture Plans do not necessarily connect the dots to a strategy for Performing Arts Centres, they establish the broad themes that the PAC’s must align with. Performing Arts Centres are uniquely positioned to help the municipalities to meet those objectives.

Role in Downtown Re-development

Municipal Performing Arts Centres can play a significant role in downtown redevelopment, a major objective in many Culture Plans. Both new venues as well historic facilities play key roles as a catalyst for downtown redevelopment as well as community place making in their respective communities.

In their Culture Plan, St. Catharines recognized the value of a strong downtown as part of its overall economic growth strategy and the role of culture as a driver for downtown revitalization and a new creative economy. It identified St. Catharines’ FirstOntario Place Performing Arts Centre Arts as a cornerstone in the strategy to revitalize downtown.

Municipal Performing Arts Centres can also play a major role in the growth of cultural tourism, another priority of many Culture Plans. As a major community asset, there is the opportunity to work closely with municipal Tourism departments to position the arts as a tourism attractor. 

Cultural Development

As mentioned previously, Municipal Performing Arts Centres in the 3.0 model must play the role of community cultural developer. This aligns well with the stated Culture Plan objectives that Municipal Performing Arts Centres must play a central role in the Growth and development of the creative sector in their respective communities. 

To quote the St Catharines’ Culture Plan, “The cultural and economic goals of the City of St. Catharines’ recently opened First Ontario Performing Arts Centre project demand that an approach be adopted that encourages development of new arts initiatives and stabilizes existing ones outside the walls of the Centre, to form a downtown cultural district.” Further, “The Centre will have an important role to play in the future cultural and economic landscape in St. Catharines. It will become the primary provider of arts experiences in St. Catharines.”

“It’s programming will embrace the professional arts sector of St. Catharines and as such it will build relationships with those companies, and provide resources, support and perspective on the needs of the sector.” 

In St. Catharines, the municipal performing arts centre is a significant investment that can make or break the local cultural sector. Thus, the municipality needs to ensure that the PAC’s economic and cultural goals are achieved so that it may fully contribute to, and foster the health of, the local arts community.

The City of Markham’s Culture Plan also states that, “(The) Flato Markham Theatre purpose is to encourage, promote and maintain the development of cultural expression in Markham at the amateur, emerging and professional level.” 

Richmond Hill’s PAC’s role is seen as, “…increasing the stability and sustainability of Richmond Hill‟s cultural organizations and fostering collaboration across a wide cross section of cultural groups and activities.”

The Creative Community

In model 3.0, presenting cutting edge contemporary work as well as supporting local organizations- where creating new and challenging work are a priority. This aligns well with the stated goals of many Culture Plans. For example, Markham’s Culture Plan recognizes that Markham has a unique opportunity to capitalize on its reputation as Canada’s most diverse City, adopting a creative identity and positioning itself on the global stage. Markham believes that, “This can be achieved by framing itself as a creative city that welcomes and facilitates the work of artists, creative industries, institutions, communities and neighbourhoods.” Markham supports and promotes culture to enrich the lives of its residents, attract new people and ideas, bolster economic development and social inclusion and celebrate its unique identity. 

The plan further says that “Markham’s cultural venues play an essential role with artists and creators, generating innovation and ideas through research and contribution to public program and content development.” Further, “We will build capacity at our 3 cultural venues to research and present new Canadian content and project that content nationally and to the world. With capacity we will build on our leadership for innovation and program quality.” 

Social Equity - Cultural Diversity

All of the Culture Plans address the issue of cultural diversity, certainly a major issue for Ontario communities. Many communities, especially in and near the GTA and Ottawa have the most diverse communities in the world. Conversely other communities in Eastern, Northern and South Western Ontario wish to attract more diverse residents, but also have large First Nations populations in the vicinity.

Diversity is generally perceived as an asset for a community. It increases attractiveness for culturally diverse businesses and workers, it is a sign of a progressive and tolerant community that welcomes new people, ideas and perspectives, and it can serve to further community development goals.

In the 3.0 model, Municipal Performing Arts Centres have a central role in their respective communities to support the growth and acceptance of cultural diversity. By presenting the work of artists from around the world that attracts diverse audiences to working with the different community based cultural organizations, diverse communities will feel recognized and accepted in their new homes.  

The City of Markham recognizes and embraces the citys cultural diversity as a cornerstone for civic engagement in its Economic Strategy Vision 2020, “A Creative Markham where innovation, technology, cultural diversity and the arts fuel successful enterprises.”

Richmond Hill is admired as a vibrant community, where diversity, gender and age are reflected in all aspects of cultural expression; and where our authentic and distinctive identity inspires a creative spirit.” 

A common theme in all of the engagement activities imbedded in the Culture Plans was the need to strengthen community inclusion and fully engage diverse population in cultural development. In community consultations, it was suggested that many residents of St. Catharines do not partake in cultural activities because of real or perceived barriers. Financial access, lack of public transportation to venues and sites, broad interests and a diverse demographic, were all cited as contributing to less than optimal cultural participation.


Cultural diversity is becoming a defining feature of the Province of Ontario. Our diversity is evolving in a way that is culturally different mix than either the US or Europe. Performances that meet the cultural needs of those communities, may not be available in the traditional “off the shelf” market place. By working together, we can attract international performing groups that are of interest to our diverse communities.

In Presenting 3.0, I also believe it will be essential to work together to commission and present new work from some of the outstanding emerging professional arts organizations from our diverse communities across Canada. Through commissioning and then presenting this type of work we will better meet community needs and leverage the development of new artists and arts organizations in the country and province. We must also find non-traditional ways to accommodate local diverse performing arts groups in our venues as well as to diversify our staffs and volunteers.

The Way Forward

To recap: Municipally supported Performing Arts Centres must evolve away from the transactional business model to a community development model of operating. Alignment to municipal culture plans is essential. While most Culture Plans do not necessarily connect the dots to a strategy for performing arts centres, they establish the broad themes that the PAC’s must align with. 

Performing arts centres are uniquely positioned to help the municipalities to meet those objectives. In most cases, they are the largest cultural investment in the municipality. Many of our traditional arts organizations that Performing Arts Centres have depended on, are under increased financial and organizational stress. At the same time grass roots organizations are emerging; doing interesting, challenging community relevant work. Our big challenge is to scale up these organizations to make them viable and sustainable for the long run, and to make a more significant community contribution as well as to enable artists to make a viable living as a professional artist. 

We need to look at more creative ways to serve our diverse citizens through commissioning, originating tours and accommodating local diverse performing arts organizations.

Finally, Ontario Presents will develop case studies that are examples of the 3.0 model, exploring some emergent models that exist that show some ideas that can help municipal performing arts centres evolve and continue to play a central role in the development of their communities and meet the objectives of their Municipal Culture Plans.

Ontario Presents will continue to make the case for the recognition of arts presentation and the increasing role and impact that municipal performing arts centres are playing and having in communities across Ontario.   

Municipalities are encouraged to consider their alignment and support of municipal cultural planning processes as effective means by which cultural, social, and economic development goals are realized at the local level by alignment of MCPs and Municipal Performing Arts Centres. A dialogue between Municipally supported Performing Arts Centre Managers and Municipal Culture Managers must continue to explore these issues in more depth and develop strategies to begin to fully implement the 3.0 model.

Brian McCurdy
 has over 35 years experience as chief executive officer of performing arts facilities, including six years as Executive Director of the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, University of California, Davis; Executive Director of the Burlington Performing Arts Centre; and the first Cultural Director of the City of Kingston, Ontario. He is the project lead for Ontario Presents’ Municipal Performing Arts Centres Project.