Leaving the helm

John Mahon says goodbye

John Mahon looks back on his tenure with the Edmonton Arts Council

Retracing the origins and early days of the Edmonton Arts Council, one can imagine different trajectories that the entity could've taken under various kinds of leaders, with a range of styles, aspirations, world views, connections, strengths and vulnerabilities. There are always fundamental questions about the nature of power and its relationship to history; the capacity of individuals to shape events through the influence of their personalities on organizations they steer.

John Mahon has been part of the EAC nearly since its inception, as grants officer during its first three years, then as executive director for the past 15. For better or worse, his fingerprints are all over the organization, setting its tone, priorities and approach to projects and problems. It's a difficult role–and in many ways a thankless one–which practically demands an Argos-eyed overseer who can, through unifying vision or force of will or favour-trading or consensus-building or any of the other myriad utilitarian tricks in the toolkit of power, forge a workable compromise between several competing societal interests and see every conceivable pitfall long before any materialize to jam up the works. And no matter what, someone, somewhere, somehow will feel slighted or ill-served.

Considering all this, one expects a more overtly steely figure at the helm than Mahon. With his soft-spoken demeanour, courtly manners, and ability to spontaneously launch into long swaths of plainspoken analysis of complex, multifaceted issues, he's easy to peg as a gentle administrative technocrat, but that ignores his animating quality: a fierce, almost evangelical belief in the power of the arts to define and express human experience and citizenship, and an unflagging curiosity about other people and perspectives. Conversations with Mahon tend to be compulsively reciprocal, with each answer volleyed back, concluding with a variation of: “What do you think?”

These personal characteristics have been hallmarks of his tenure, a kind of quietly persistent growth and erosion of obstacles that feels incremental, uneven and often frustratingly slow, but a glance backward confirms the landscape has been altered in the presence of such stubborn effort.

But history also shapes itself. Sometimes prevailing conditions only allow a narrow set of options for leadership, and only certain kinds of people can seize the reins. The story of the EAC begins as one of constraint.

“Interest in an arts council really started in 1992 with a challenge by the professional arts community to Mayor [Jan] Reimer, around the issue of grants,” Mahon relates. “The city had a 'grant and aid' program, part of a number of programs that went to arts, culture, sport, things like that.  Decisions were made by the Parks and Recreation Cultural Advisory Board, which was made up of well-meaning and intelligent citizens, but with no particular expertise in any of these areas. The assumption was that this was the best type of person to make these decisions—it was very much seen as a charitable model, and didn't require the deciders to know the business.”
Mahon recalls the politics around the issue was volatile.

“Mayor Reimer struck up a task force to look into the bigger issue of the relationship between the professional arts, the amateur arts, and the city, and one of the recommendations was to create an arts council. At the time, there was a divided city council and many councillors were in opposition to Mayor Reimer in general on a number of issues, but the arts became a symbol of what she wanted. So there was a lot of controversy and skepticism, that the idea was that if you turned this grant money over to artists to allocate through a peer jury process, self-interest and greed would take over.”

Although Mahon attributes resistance to establishing the EAC to the political micro-climate of the late Reimer era, the relationship throughout North America between the arts and political communities in the early '90s was fraught. The '70s and '80s had seen the rise of activist artists and arts organizations, largely driven by reverberations from the civil rights movements and social justice concerns (who celebrated the sanctity of speaking one's own truth, even if it caused extreme discomfort in others), which collided with deepening political partisanship provoked by differing responses to the same forces. In the US, the situation culminated in major ruckuses over arts funding, and those became embroiled in what were coming to be called the Culture Wars. It's hard to remember now, when the arts have become so pacified and entrenched in our notions of civic life—and, of course, intensities of these values skirmishes varied from region to region—but there was a general, pervasive wariness towards the arts at the time, especially in conservative circles.
“Council decided to give it a trial year,” Mahon continues. “By one vote. Seven to six. They said, 'Set up an arts council, but if you're going to be annoying to us, constantly advocating or lobbying or criticizing us—inappropriately criticizing us—or unfairly allocating funds, we're just not going to continue. But we'll give you a year.' So, those were the politics.”

The EAC's “stump year” was launched with a steering committee drawn from both the civic service and arts communities, and a tiny staff, including Mahon. Josh Keller, a freelance arts administrator from a theatre background, became its first executive director.

Mahon, a clarinetist by training and inclination, arrived after seven years with Pro Coro Canada.
“I was exhausted, mostly from the bingos, the fundraising. My health couldn't take any more of the bingos!” he recalls. “They came every month and there was tons of smoke. I thought I'd take time off, but I applied and got the grants job.”

And then conditions changed. “Mayor Reimer lost the election to Bill Smith, and the Arts Council, when it came time for renewal, went through really quickly,” Mahon remembers. “There'd been no major train crashes in the stump year, and also because Josh Keller was an excellent executive director. He really put a rational, human, reasonable face on the Arts Council. In the first three years, he just positioned the EAC. Every time the phone rang and someone said, 'Would you come talk about this?'—out Josh went.”

Mahon considers this aspect of Keller's leadership to be key to the EAC's survival, as well as its continued growth and relevance.

“People got to know the Arts Council as a willing, trusted and well-prepared partner,” he explains. “So many issues intersect with the arts that you find yourself in some pretty interesting conversations that you hadn't anticipated: economic development, tourism, we got involved with sport community when they set up the Sport Council. Heritage, of course. Social service agencies, like Boyle Street Community Services, Emergency Youth Shelter [now known as Youth Empowerment & Support Services], iHuman. We've been involved in some city planning and revitalization projects: Alberta Avenue, The Quarters. For a while, I joined the Chamber of Commerce policy committee, partly to learn about how they work, and also to let them know about us.”

Keller's practice of radical involvement has remained a cornerstone of EAC business.
“Josh said: 'Just go to the point where you go too far, rather than be conservative, rather than say, that's not my job, instead, say: well, how could this be relevant?'” he adds. “Eventually you think: well, what wouldn't involve the arts, you know? So we'd go to everything!”

In 1998, Keller was ready to move on, and the board selected Mahon to replace him. Mahon agrees there was philosophical continuity between Keller's era and his own.

“The politics settled under Josh, and we've really never had a political threat since,” he reflects. “In many ways, Josh set the values, the personality of the organization. It was a nice period to take over, because we could create our own expectations. We were setting the agenda. Bill Smith and his councils were good to us. They were not interested in any aggressive expansion, but there was never an indication they wouldn't support what we were doing. We got modest increases. We had three people on staff, and when we expanded to four, we thought, 'Whoa! This is getting really big,'” Mahon laughs.

“It really changed gears under Mayor Mandel's Council. He came in with an overall ambitious civic agenda, way beyond the arts. I include the whole council here. They certainly have disagreements on strategy, but I think they share the same goal—it's not as if the mayor has to rail against people who don't care or are fundamentally opposed. But Mandel's interest in building the city as a place for people, as a spiritual place, as a community, was really where we came in.”

So many projects were being introduced and discussed, especially near the one-time federal funding dump that came with Edmonton's 2007 Cultural Capital designation, that creating a coherent plan for the city's investment in the arts became a priority. Mahon's clearly proud of the result, 'The Art of Living.' The plan, released in 2008, became a blueprint for cultural development.

“We wrote it over about a two-year period, because we did lots of consultation; we wanted to be inclusive. We gathered professional arts practitioners and asked: what are your issues? We talked about practicalities: training, facilities. Tangibles,” Mahon explains. “But the biggest strength of 'Art of Living' is that it attempts to put the arts in context, to place the arts, artists and arts society within the city, and it does the same for heritage. Other cultural plans—many of which I admire—skip over that.”

The 'Art of Living' featured commissioned essays, elaborating on various perspectives and experiences of working as artists, and addressing the role of artists as citizens. “These were unusual in a cultural plan, but I wanted them for two reasons: to give the idea that there are many voices, like a choir, with some harmony and dissonance, but an overall, clear purpose. And I wanted the thing to survive beyond what was mandatory, so that it had a shelf life. And it seems to have done that. We give it away, but still, it's unusual to go through three printings in a cultural plan,” Mahon notes.
The plan was adopted—no changes—by council in 2008, an implementation plan was made, and although momentum was slowed by the financial crisis later that year, the city followed through on investing in the Heritage Council and ArtsHab.

“Both potent symbols,” Mahon adds. “And in this current term, we've had major increases to our funding base for a total of $5 million over the past three years, essentially doubling what we had. And the justification for it is 'Art of Living.' Council wants to see all 17 recommendations done. And they're diligent. They're not indifferent. They want to know we're making progress, and if not, they want to know why.” (The public is also updated regularly.)

Mahon feels this acceptance demonstrates a shift had already happened.
“People realize that one of the roles of the city is to invest in artists,” he notes. “That's been a real change. When you go back to 'grant and aid,' that was a charitable mindset: we'll give artists money because they need help. Now, it's: here's an opportunity to invest in something that will grow and bring something back to the city.”

As evidence, Mahon points to impact studies the EAC has done that demonstrate economic and social returns, but his real passion is reserved for a third form of payback.

“The arts ultimately transform us as people. We've all had that encounter in our lives, probably many times, where we see a picture, read a book, hear some music, are in a theatre, watch a film—and it changes us. It's not always a huge, lights-on, cymbals-crashing change, but we get addicted to it. Especially in our adolescence, when we're really looking for those particular moments. And you don't plan for them: 'Oh, today I'm going to knock off Wagner and look into the development of rockabilly.' You get it as you go. And so you want it around you. That's the artistic return,” Mahon offers. “It's hard to raise in the public forum of city council or whatever, but I'll state my belief: we're better off to have that, as a species.”

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