Q&A with the new Chair of the Koffler Centre of the Arts, Helen Burstyn


July 29, 2020

Helen Burstyn

The Koffler Centre of the Arts is delighted to announce the appointment of Helen Burstyn to the role of Chair of the Board of Directors. Burstyn succeeds Co-Chairs Tiana Koffler Boyman and Carl L. Goldenberg.

The Koffler asked Helen eight questions about her new role, her background, experience, interests and passions, and her vision for the future of the Koffler Centre of the Arts. 

Read the press release announcing Helen Burstyn’s appointment.  

You have a 40-year career in business, government, academia, broadcasting and community service. How did the arts first enter your life? 

It started with a love of reading. I didn’t experience a theatre performance or museum or a live concert until my late teens, but I was reading books – and living vicariously through their characters – from a very early age. The local library became like a second home to me and the bookmobile brought a selection of marvelous reading material practically to my doorstep. I studied English and Comparative Literature throughout my university years and had a very artsy crowd of friends, so evenings and weekends became filled with movies, art galleries and performances of every kind. There really wasn’t an art form I didn’t enjoy, and that’s still true today. 

My transition from a lover of the arts to a supporter of the arts came later. I was a public servant for many years and because I worked mainly in the area of economic development and trade, I was often a lone voice advocating for the value of arts and culture when most of the attention was on the auto sector or steel or agriculture. Don’t get me wrong, those industries are vitally important, but so is the contribution of arts and culture to the economy and to our wellbeing as a society.

When I became Chair of the Ontario Trillium Foundation in 2004, I became much more aware of the enormous importance of the non-profit and charitable sector, which contribute more to the economy than the auto and agricultural sectors combined. About a quarter of our grants went to non-profits in the arts and culture sector, organizations that were so essential to building healthy and vibrant communities in neighbourhoods everywhere. 

You’ve chaired and sat on an impressive number of boards, including Evergreen, The Walrus Foundation, the Toronto Public Library Foundation, UNICEF, the Canadian Opera Company, and Luminato. What do you think is the most important way a Board can contribute to an organization’s mission?  

I think of non-profit directors as the Chief Volunteer Officers of an organization. I often joke that this is a job where the pay is lousy, but the benefits are great. Paid or unpaid, being a board director is an important role and probably the most interesting and rewarding work I’ve done over my career. As volunteers, it’s our choice to be there, but accepting that responsibility involves serious commitments of time and talent. And yes, there is the expectation that every director also be a financial contributor at a level that feels comfortable to them. 

Boards have many responsibilities, but essentially it boils down to providing thoughtful insights and careful oversight. Respecting the mission and vision of the organization, being champions for the organization, ensuring financial stability, helping the organization be attractive and responsive to donors and granters, building a good reputation and a positive image, and positioning the organization strategically for growth – these are all areas where the board can support the organization’s success. This is all much more challenging in a COVID-19 context, of course, and requires more board involvement than ever before.

It’s also important that a board be diverse in its perspectives, in its professional composition and in its cultural representation. Recruiting and building a strong, effective board is one of the most important things I focus on as a board Chair, and it’s certainly going to be a key area of focus for all of us at the Koffler.

What is it about the Koffler that excites you? 

So many things! I’m so impressed with the richness and variety of the Koffler’s programming — the gallery exhibitions, the digital projects, the virtual learning opportunities, the literary and education programs that bring artists, students and local communities together, and the list goes on. I’m a big fan of the Books & Ideas series and the annual Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature, a national award that recognizes exceptional literary works for both adults and young people by authors from across the country.

What’s most important and impressive about the Koffler’s array of programs is how every one of them, from the gallery conversations to the digital projects, fulfills the Centre’s mandate of creating an innovative and inclusive platform for the exchange of ideas and creative, cross-cultural dialogue.

You are passionate about many forms of art. Tell us about the last great work of art you enjoyed?

It’s true, I’m passionate about theatre, dance and music but also visual art, literature, journalism, and pretty well every art form you can name. I’ve never met an art form I didn’t appreciate, as long as it’s well done. Part of what makes art meaningful for me is its message or, to borrow an old Luminato tag line, how it makes you see the world in a whole new light. Art can be purely entertaining, of course, but I tend to gravitate towards art that is more complex, that illuminates injustice, that tackles uncomfortable subjects and that provokes new thinking.

During COVID, I’ve been experiencing an incredible range of art online. I’m grateful to all the arts organizations, artists and sponsors who are toughing it out during this pandemic and giving an eager and captive audience so much to enjoy. Some of the most powerful performances I’ve seen have brought the stage to the screen…there’s Stratford’s Coriolanus and the British National Theatre’s Jane Eyre, and the list goes on. If you’re reading this interview, you’re already on the Koffler site and you should check out all the digital offerings, including our most recent Koffler.Digital project, Eleventh House, Art Bursts, Still Lives, and our Books & Ideas series.

Where do you turn for inspiration?

I’m inspired by creative people and what they create. Toronto and Canada are rich in talented, innovative, community-spirited people. The Koffler Centre for the Arts was founded by Murray and Marvelle Koffler, extraordinary visionaries whose legacy has grown over the last 40 years and is continued by their family.

Someone else who inspires me still is my late husband, David Pecaut. He was another fearless creative force who, together with Tony Gagliano, founded the Luminato Festival, which next year will celebrate its 15th anniversary. He was also a civic entrepreneur and the driving force behind CivicAction and other initiatives to address homelessness, income insecurity, youth unemployment and other complex challenges. 

Despite the fact that we’re all gathering online instead of in person these days, I continue to draw inspiration from forums like the one recently hosted by CivicAction and festivals like Luminato and TIFF.  I’m a bit of a festival junkie and will typically attend every performance during the ten days of Luminato and see thirty or more films during TIFF.  That sounds like a lot for most people, but for me that’s the definition of a really good time. 

You have been recognized with numerous awards and distinctions for your community and public service. Can you describe what influenced and drives you to dedicate so much of your energy to building community and to volunteerism?

I learned the value and importance of public service during my years in government. I learned the value and importance of community service at Trillium, where from my front-row seat I saw how tens of thousands of non-profit and charitable organizations deliver vital human, health, environmental and other services. I see community service as an extension of public service, and I believe we need both to have a strong economy and a just society. 

What might someone be surprised to know about you?

My first language is not English. It’s a language that’s spoken by a tiny percentage of the Canadian population, but it’s the only language we spoke at home when I was growing up in Toronto and Orillia, and that language is Yiddish. My parents were Holocaust survivors from Poland and they came to Canada in 1949 with my brother, who was then an infant. I was the only member of my family born in this country. My mother always said that was the reason I was so “good in English” and why I was destined to become a great writer. Sorry, mom. 

What do you imagine the next five years might hold for the Koffler?

It’s hard to say at the next five years might hold for any organization, given the uncertainty we’re living through in 2020 and how much, how long and how deep that will change our lives in the years to come. But I can predict that the Koffler will continue to be a strong and important cultural institution that engages audiences of all ages and backgrounds in exploring critical issues of our time. And as a Jewish organization, we will grow ever stronger in fostering social justice, equality and intercultural dialogue as we present exhibitions, performances, conversations, publications and digital initiatives. In other words, we’ll live up to our mission and values, and we’ll find new ways of strengthening both.

Read Helen Burstyn’s full bio here.

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