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The Art of Leadership

As the Hamilton Chamber's new chair, Louise Dompierre aims to improve the political—and creative—culture of the city
By Ted McIntyre

Rainbow, an eight-year-old Airedale terrier, sits happily behind a gate that so gently leans against Louise Dompierre's desk at the Art Gallery of Hamilton that it's barely a suggestion to stay put.

Dompierre has been bringing her dog to work every day since December—a companion, to be sure, but also a reminder—in colourful name and disposition—of the many things that evoke emotion and inspire us in life. And cultural inspiration has long painted the pathway of Dompierre's career.

Born in Hull, Quebec (now Gatineau), Dompierre has been a leader in Hamilton's arts community since taking the reins as AGH president and CEO in December 1998, when she oversaw the gallery's extraordinary revitalization. Her vision and commitment further led to significant new support through art donations in garnering Hamilton international recognition.

To say Dompierre came well recommended is to undersell her. Formerly the associate director and chief curator of The Power Plant in Toronto, where she played a key role in the development of Canada's most dynamic and ambitious centre for contemporary visual arts, Dompierre has also worked at the Canada Council for the Arts in Ottawa, earned the prestigious Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres award and served on the Board of the NFB. She was inducted in Hamilton's Gallery of Distinction in 2007, and received an LLD (Hon.) from McMaster University in 2008.

But as the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce's new Chair, Dompierre now finds herself bathed in the spotlight for her political persuasive abilities as much as her artistic vision.

BIZ: What was your first job?
LD: As a student, before going to university, I worked in the X-ray department of what was then the Ottawa General Hospital.

What did you learn from it? That I didn't want to be a doctor! It was located in the market area, which was not a gentrified neighbourhood. It was where people went to have a good time on Friday night. So Saturday morning my job was to register people who'd had too much of a good time there the night before. I learned that you had to be empathetic to people, because they're there under different emotions. I learned how to respond to different kinds of situations, which was valuable.

You had an immensely difficult situation to deal with early last year, losing your husband of more than 30 years, Peter Morris, to lung cancer. It's hard to describe. It's like losing part of yourself. Your life has achieved a certain pace and rhythm, and then suddenly there's a piece of you that's gone. It happened so quickly. It's the second time that I lost someone this way. When I was 17, my father died of a heart attack. One day he was there and healthy and the next day he was gone. Working here has helped me find a kind of equilibrium.

You've since poured your heart even more into the AGH and local politics. Why did you accept the nomination as Chair of the Hamilton Chamber? I've been a member of the Chamber since I moved to Westdale 12 years ago. It gives me the opportunity to meet people that I otherwise wouldn't. In Toronto, the art world is so large that you really don't have any time left to meet people from other walks of life, as you do in Hamilton. I accepted to be part of the Board, but then I became Chair faster than expected because of the departure of Andrew Furgal, who was next in line. But I accepted because I wanted to bring together businesses and arts. Also, I was interested in playing a role in transforming the governance of the Chamber. I always thought that it was very important that the CEO have a higher profile and be given the opportunity to be a leader of the Chamber. One of my key roles will be to make sure that there is a smooth transition from the past to the future, where our CEO/president will become the face of the Chamber for the community. We all have specific roles, but most important, the Board should work with the CEO to shape the vision of the future and address issues relevant to the business community.

What do you consider Hamilton's greatest strength? Its people. The geographical location is great, and we have an inspiring history, but it's people that make things happen. The people in this region are generally ambitious and creative and take risks, and that appeals to me. In Toronto, there's more passivity. For example, following a speaker's talk, more often than not there's silence. Here, the people are all over the speaker with questions. They're curious and want to draw off that person's experience.

What about Hamilton's greatest weakness? I think we still haven't reconciled ourselves to the fact that this is one great city now. We have to be focused to go to the next step, but at the moment we're still too fragmented. People generally see themselves as from Dundas or Westdale, Stoney Creek or Ancaster, Ottawa Street, Locke Street, James Street. All those communities are gems, but one shouldn't exclude the other. We have to start singing together.

Along those lines, you have a great passion for restoring the inner city. What are three keys to realizing that vision? First, we have to very creatively connect the various parts of our city, because we're disconnected right now. We have to make it a place where people can enjoy walking and discovering the city by foot. The second thing is that we need more people living in the core. People will bring businesses, food, clothing and restaurants. The more people we have, the safer it will be. Then you need arts and culture. Once people's basic needs are met, they turn to entertainment, and we have almost all it takes to fill that need.

What are your thoughts on the need and urgency of an LRT? An LRT will be great, but what I'm actually looking forward to is a regular GO Service between Hamilton and Toronto. It will generate a boom in terms of land and business development, as well as community growth. We need to facilitate the exchanges between the two cities, as well as with cities on the way to and from Hamilton. And it would certainly be good for traffic.

It might help with the post-secondary brain drain too, since many graduates now leave the city to live and work elsewhere. Yes, and it would also help them contribute more to the city in other ways since they'd be spending less time commuting.

What's been the fallout of last year's Economic Summit? Renew Hamilton is most certainly a great project to have come out of the Summit. But I'm also most encouraged by the growing number of small to medium- size businesses in new media settling here. I believe that the Summit has helped generate a sense of being welcome in the city, that things are affordable and possible. And the City has taken steps to make it easier for those new companies to find their way through the bureaucracy.

What have you learned about City politics and challenges since really immersing yourself in the Chamber? One thing I know is that it's possible to make things happen in Hamilton. The James Street North Supercrawl is a great example. Who would have thought years ago that a group of arts and business people would get together to create this festival? They've grown a lot in a very short period of time and drawn attention to the community.

Being privy to the inner workings of the Chamber must have brought you into contact with some impressive folks. We have incredibly generous people in this community—not just from a financial perspective, but people who are generous with their time. Coming from an arts background, I will never forget when we launched the first renovation project at the Gallery in 1998. The Board indicated that we needed to meet with John Mayberry, the CEO of Dofasco, to seek his support for the project. I thought, "You don't get a meeting with the CEO of Dofasco that easily." But to my surprise, we got a meeting just like that! Within an hour, John had endorsed our project and we had the support of Dofasco, which proved to be invaluable. That really opened my eyes to this particular dynamic in the city, that there are many people in key positions who are willing to sit down and talk about big projects. They're very accessible. David Braley, Ron Joyce, Ron Foxcroft, Michael Schwenger, Bob and Maggie Carr, and many others.

You've been with the AGH since 1998? That was a tough first year, being responsible for the $20 million revitalization of the gallery, with humidity leaking through the concrete walls. Everything is possible when you have a Board that is supportive and understanding. The Board gave me the authority and support to do what I thought was necessary. We couldn't run a professional art gallery in the condition it was in at the time. In some ways, it was an easy sell. The moment you showed the buckets to people and talked about the mould in the walls, they saw how desperate the situation was. The Board had taken measures to address this before I came and had a project manager in place. I arrived at the time we hired an architect. But there wasn't a plan to do the inside, which is what I pushed. There's always nervousness in terms of what you can raise, but $20 million to do the kind of renovations we did is modest in comparison with similar projects across the country.

Hamilton is not widely acknowledged as a city of culture. Is that unfair? We're obviously not a key centre in Canada, but we have a surprisingly high percentage of talented people if you take all the arts into consideration. We have amazing musical talent and an increasingly great community of visual artists. And we have new media—animators and very creative young businesses moving here. People from elsewhere are always shocked when they come to the AGH and see the size of this gallery. We will be celebrating our centennial in 2014, and our collection is the envy of other places in Canada. There's the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum gift of over 200 works of 19th-century European art, but the Gallery also owns a great Dutch, British and American collection. We have, of course, one of the greatest Canadian historical collections and some other superb art.

What do you consider the most impressive exhibitions or objets d'art to have graced the AGH? Some I love because they're the people's favourite, like the Group of Seven and Alex Colville. Others I love because they're so unusual, such as Charles Cordier's Chinese Man, made of various metals. It's a rare, striking piece that I'm so proud of. Galleries from around the world borrow works from our collection, including France, Hungary and the U.S.

What is your operating budget? Five million— and some individual shows cost more than that!

Some of that you use to give back to the community. Yes, we have free-of-charge summer camps for kids whose parents cannot afford to send them here. They also receive an art kit to take home so that they can draw afterward. We also offer free admission to our exhibitions the first Friday of every month. And people have free access to our collection on the second level.

Why should the arts matter to local business? Art is the essence of life! The arts provide you with a way of apprehending the world in a different way through music, dance, the visual arts. It's a form of discovery. The themes of life, death and renewal tend to repeat themselves, but artists find new ways of talking about them. We need that. But since people also travel great distances to attend a concert, or to see a play or an exhibition, the arts generate tourism and profit for the businesses of our city. It's also important to keep in mind that arts organizations tend to grow, and the more they grow, the more they contribute to the economic life of the area. The money also comes in one door and goes out the other into the community through salaries that are paid, services that are hired and so on.

You have to operate it as a business, don't you? There was a time where people like me felt that governments should be there to support our activities. But this thinking is changing quickly. It's clear that there isn't enough money to go around. Government support will always be needed, but arts organizations also have to work at becoming more self-sufficient while keeping in mind their mandate and mission.

What is your proudest achievement? We're working hard at developing programs that work for our audiences, whether it be exhibitions, studios, tours or talks. Last year, 170,000 people came to the gallery, which is quite an achievement. We've worked hard at forging various links with the community. Many of my staff are on committees and boards so that we're connected to the community. Our pride and joy, of course, is our new World Film Festival, a fast-growing festival that takes place in late September. We also have a whole new interactive digital media program that we developed in collaboration with McMaster University and (St. Catharines') Silicon Knights. I'm very excited about digital media. I think it's the future.

As the AGH's reputation grows, is it easier to secure exhibitions or particular pieces? Yes, but we haven't yet achieved the blockbuster. They're hard to get and very expensive, and you have to have the money ready when they come around. We're working at building a financial base to get those. But even in larger institutions, it's hard to make those shows work financially because they're so expensive to produce. Even with large attendance, we'd have to charge too much to balance the books, so you need to complement your budget with government grants and sponsorships. But our William Kurelek show was a great success, as will be, we hope, Emily Carr and Through the Eyes of Napoleon, coming up in late fall.

Can you ever leave your baby? One has to know when it's time to change. My time will come, but I have a few things in the oven, so it hopefully won't be anytime soon.