This Week in History


A Centre for the Arts in the National Capital

For the week of Monday June 2, 2008

On June 2, 1969, the National Arts Centre (NAC) first opened in Ottawa. It would become one of the leading performing arts institutions in Canada and North America.

View of the NAC from Elgin Street
© Parks Canada / Matthew Schwarzkopf / 2017
The NAC was created in response to a lack of suitable performance venues in the National Capital Region. In 1963, the Arts Alliance, a group made up of more than 50 local organizations, lobbied the federal government to build a national centre dedicated to entertaining visitors and encouraging the development of the arts in Ottawa as well as across the country. On December 23, 1963, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson approved the construction project.

In 1964, Fred Lebensold was hired as the architect for the project. The NAC was built in the Brutalist architectural style. The concrete building consists of three main sections, each in the shape of a hexagon, with three performance halls. The largest is the opera hall, known as Southam Hall since 2000, reserved for operas, ballets and major performances. Then there is the Theatre, used for plays and smaller performances, while the Studio is for intimate and experimental shows. Later on another hall, the Fourth Stage, was built for community shows in a section of the building originally intended for commercial space. Meeting rooms, such as Le Salon, are also available for rent to the public. As recently as 2017, renovations have been done to modernize the facility.

Southam Hall in 1985
© André Dubreuil / courtesy of the National Arts Centre

Located in the heart of the National Capital along the Rideau Canal, the NAC is close to Confederation Square and Parliament Hill. It is a bilingual, multidisciplinary centre for the performing arts -- the only such centre in all of North America and one of the world’s largest. It is also home to the NAC Orchestra and a permanent collection of contemporary art by Canadian and international artists. Some works are even incorporated into the architecture. The NAC also hosts dignitaries visiting the National Capital and has a gourmet restaurant, Le Café.

The construction of the NAC was a cultural and architectural accomplishment for the Government of Canada. The Centre continues to host a wide range of local and international productions each year. The National Arts Centre was designated a National Historic Site in 2006.

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