The businessman-politician who knows how to save art from itself

Dan Mathieson was one of the brains behind the very successful Stratford Festival. The path is simple, he says: entrepreneurial ruthlessness

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This is a conversation series by Donna Kennedy-Glans, a writer and former Alberta cabinet minister, featuring newsmakers and intriguing personalities.

Festival after festival across Canada is heading to the edge of the fiscal cliff. Edmonton’s Fringe Festival and Toronto’s Hot Docs report massive deficits and dire straits ahead without an infusion of funds. Just for Laughs has been forced to cancel festivals in Toronto and Montreal. In a post-pandemic world, festivals are vulnerable; many find themselves precariously caught in the financial squeeze of spiralling inflation and reduced government largesse.

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And yet, there are festivals that have figured out ways over the hurdles — most notably, the Stratford Festival, Canada’s largest not-for-profit theatre company. At its recent AGM, the festival reported a 2023 season financial surplus of $404,000; a 35 per cent year-over-year increase in attendance, including a 30 per cent uptick in ticket sales to first-time festival patrons.

“Government investment in the arts has been declining for years, and many of these failures are years in the making,” contends former five-term mayor of Stratford, Ont., Dan Mathieson, when I connect with him to find out what the Stratford Festival is doing differently.

Dan spent 20 years on the Stratford Festival board, retiring in 2023; he presently serves on the board of the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, P.E.I. This guy’s had a directing role in bringing together community, government and the arts in Stratford and there’s zero room for complacency in his approach. Failing organizations haven’t done the hard gut-check, set the long-term vision and they don’t pivot, is Dan’s blunt assessment.

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“They got an idea, and they have 30 years of one-year experience. They do the same thing, over and over again. Charlottetown was bad; they did Anne of Green Gables for almost 50 years,” Dan groans. “I say it all the time in Stratford,” he continues, “If I have to sit through opening night of Tempest one more time, Henry VIII or Romeo and Juliet…” he pauses, then breaks into a chuckle.

That’s why Stratford Festival is doing only four or five Shakespeare plays now, instead of eight or nine, Dan explains. And, I’m quick to point out, the festival hires creative playwrights, including Edmonton’s brilliant, over-the-top Brad Fraser; his spiced up adaptation of Richard II at the Tom Patterson Theatre did very well last season.

“You know, Stratford dodged a bullet a number of times financially,” Dan explains, “and in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, we had a series of strong board leaders … corporate types who came in and said, ‘Look, you don’t have the arts if you don’t have a business.’” Recognizing that reality, an endowment program was created to support a festival that’s now worth $100 million.

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You don’t have the arts if you don’t have a business

Today, the Stratford Festival reports that roughly five per cent of its annual budget comes from an annual payout from the endowment fund; five per cent from the Ontario and federal governments, combined (there is no funding from the municipal government).  Ninety per cent of revenues come from ticket sales and donations.

“We just finished building the new Tom Patterson Theatre,” Dan shares, offering up a tangible example of the festival’s longer-term thinking. “I was on the building committee and we took a piece of city land and sold it to the theatre, not without controversy, and you know there’s some people that hate me for it in the community because it was down along the river. But at the end of the day, we built an amazing $70-million theatre, and having raised $110 million, all the excess money went into the endowment. So that building has maintenance money built into it.”

Since 2022 Dan’s been out of politics — among other pursuits, he owns an equity company and sits on the board of Hampton Financial, a publicly traded company on the TSX. During his tenure as mayor of Stratford, he helped secure the city’s economic future with a strategic plan that paved the way for high-speed internet in every home; the University of Waterloo’s launch of a digital media school at a campus in Stratford; and the city’s leading role in the autonomous and connected vehicle business.

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“I had lots of people tell us they’ll never do it (autonomous car testing) in Stratford,” says Dan, “they’ll want to do it in Windsor, Oshawa, Oakville, wherever the assemblers are.” But he struck the deal.

Dan approaches the non-profit world with the same hard-nosed logic and discipline. He’s not afraid to advocate for rationalization of non-profits, sooner rather than later. And he expects festivals to be governed with a business mindset: “I just think there’s not a lot of that foresight and distance-thinking happening because we’ve never really got a lot of these festival boards to a level of sophistication in governance, financial management, and business. We populated them with fans of the arts, people that have a passion, but nobody’s there doing the other side of it, which is the business side. So they’ve been able to run deficits, and then some of these get bailed out … and we’ve got all these one-offs.”

I catch myself nodding in agreement as Dan shares stories of organizations that have engineered financially bleak outcomes, even squandering retained surpluses, all in an effort to stimulate donations. Dan’s particularly agitated by promoters wrapping themselves in the cloak of “we’re doing this for our community” whilst collecting a sizable management fee and sponsorships to run a so-called non-profit.

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The Stratford Festival board has been good at regular vision renewal, “starting with what do our demographics look like now and what are they going to look like in the future and what do people want to see,” and that helps inform the business plan, Dan explains. It’s irritating to him that governments haven’t always made non-profits dig into the underlying data, or justify their decisions, “playing off the soft side as opposed to the tougher more important business strategy.” And sometimes, we agree, it’s just easier — or politically expedient — for governments to throw money at failing organizations.

Having sat on the board of non-profits, large and small, including the Banff Centre, I get what Dan’s saying. But lines have to be drawn between festivals like the Stratford Festival that are economic drivers and employers, and smaller community building opportunities, and he understands that too.

And there’s no doubt business-minded governance has made the Stratford Festival viable, since its inception in 1953. But we can’t forget: Without creative, risk-taking artists, playwrights and designers capable of “sparking human imagination through the art of live theatre,” the Stratford Festival’s mandate, there would be no business.

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