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Approval for the National Arts Centre

For the week of Monday, December 23, 2013

On December 23, 1963, Ottawa resident and diplomat G. Hamilton Southam received a wonderful Christmas present: his proposal for a performing arts centre was approved! The then Prime Minister of Canada, Lester B. Pearson, agreed to provide funding and gave the approval for the project.

West entrance to the National Arts Centre, Ottawa, Ontario.

© Parks Canada, 2013

The National Arts Centre (NAC) had been a long-standing dream of the well-established Southam family, since Ottawa lacked a suitable performance venue. Artists touring in the capital region had to perform in school gyms or movie theatres. For lovers of the arts such as the Southams, this was unacceptable.

In November 1963, Southam submitted his proposal for the creation of an arts centre and an annual arts festival to the Prime Minister. The centre represented the aspirations of the Arts Alliance (set up to promote culture in Ottawa) and the people of Ottawa, who wanted a proper concert hall, even if some of them thought it wiser to invest in the funding and training of performing arts groups rather than in the building where they could perform.

View of the National Arts Centre from the Mackenzie King Bridge.

© Parks Canada, 2013

The project grew in scope, since Pearson deemed it a fitting way to mark Canada’s Centennial year. Despite attacks from his political adversaries and journalists, who were outraged by the building’s exorbitant price tag (which had risen from the originally announced $9 million to $46.1 million), the Prime Minister continued to support Southam.

It was not until 1969 that the NAC opened its doors to the public. The massive concrete structure with its irregular forms houses several performance halls. Today, it continues to fulfil its original mandate, showcasing music, opera, dance and theatre for both English- and French-speaking patrons.

In 2006, the National Arts Centre was designated as a site of national historic significance because of its innovative architecture that combines the work of architects and acousticians, and for its contribution to Canada’s culture. Lester Bowles Pearson was named a person of national historic significance in 1974 in recognition of his accomplishments as Prime Minister.

This year marks the National Arts Centre’s 50th anniversary. To find out more about this cultural institution, we suggest reading: A Centre for the Arts in the National Capital. For other vignettes on Canada’s artistic heritage, click on Opulence Takes the Stage, The Queen of Concert Halls, Tutus at Eaton Auditorium and A Gem of a Theatre  from the This Week in History archives.

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