Yukon Arts Centre CEO Al Cushing jokes that a fortune cookie clinched the decision to come North

Al Cushing sits on a bench in historic King’s Square in Saint John, New Brunswick, reminiscing about his high school grad party on this very spot. It was a blistering day, and the hotel where the event was scheduled had no air conditioning. “We were going to die of heat prostration,” he recounts. “One of my classmates was a son of the city manager, so he got permission for us to have the band out in the bandshell. The music, the moonlight, the stars — it was very romantic.” Cushing, who has been chief executive officer of the Yukon Arts Centre since 2008, credits an English teacher at Saint John High School who “did theatre on the side” with infecting him with the drama bug. “We did three plays and a musical every year, which is a lot for a high school, but it was great.” Heeding his mother’s advice to get an education and “get a real job”, Cushing did two years of undergraduate study at University of New Brunswick before transferring to Carleton University in Ottawa to study sociology. “Around Christmas of my first year there, I got bored and said, ‘I’ll just go and do something with the drama club, because I’ll meet some people. It will be good,’” he recalls. “That was the end of my education, because the drama club, Sock ‘n’ Buskin, was very active. We did a lot of work, and I became the venue technician for the theatre.” From there, he moved to the National Arts Centre in 1973, starting as a “gofer” and winding up as technical director and assistant to the theatre department’s production director. A decade later, he was contracted to handle equipment procurement for the fledgling Calgary Centre for the Performing Arts, and helping run a production services company jointly owned by Alberta Theatre Projects and Theatre Calgary. “We produced all the sets, props and costumes for the resident theatre companies,” he says. “It was a very interesting concept of two theatre companies co-operating to run the shops, and it worked very well.” Next came nine years in Winnipeg as production manager for the Manitoba Theatre Centre. “We had two venues, the main stage and the warehouse, which explains why I periodically confuse my staff in Whitehorse, because I think ‘Old Fire Hall/Warehouse’; I get confused.” In 1996 he headed back to a much-expanded Calgary Centre for the Performing Arts (renamed the EPCOR Centre shortly afterward), first as director of production, then for a decade as vice president of operations. “It’s huge,” Cushing says. “The largest venue is 1,500 seats, then two 500-seaters, then a little one and another couple.” The smallest venue eventually gained the nickname “the motel”, he explains. “It sat about 50 people, and was for emerging artists. They could come in and prepare a show and put it on and it wasn’t going to bankrupt them. It was all there for them, but it was for one-night stands. Hence the name motel.” On a chilly fall day in 2007, Cushing flew North with his wife, Linda Leon, to be interviewed for the Yukon Arts Centre job. “The people were so warm and friendly and approachable,” he says. “Harreson Tanner took Linda off to see all the art galleries, and Duncan Sinclair threw a wine and cheese for the candidate, and there were about 50 people there. It was very, very nice.” On the flight home, they started listing the pros and cons of moving to Whitehorse, continuing over supper at their favourite Chinese restaurant in Calgary. “When the fortune cookie came, we cracked it open and it said, ‘Leaving the nest will lead to great adventures,’ at which point we went, ‘Screw the list; let’s go to Whitehorse!’” he says with a hearty laugh. Seven years in, Cushing has a renewed contract and a mandate to continue making the Yukon Arts Centre a community-based entity that supports visual and performing artists throughout the territory. “I find myself focused as kind of the hub, the spider of the web. I’m surrounded by some really amazing people… and this great team is out making things, doing things, changing things,” he says. “I could do the ‘I’ll be the star’ thing and go out and try to do it all myself, but that’s just stupid. It’s much better to build a team that will do that, and you’re multiplying the effect.” Cushing considers Yukoners “extraordinarily fortunate” that successive governments, “and particularly the people in the Culture branch”, have done so much to help grow and maintain the territory’s cultural community. “But I’m also astonished at the work that was done by people of the Yukon who set out and said we’re going to have arts and culture in our community and made it happen. And they’re still making it happen,” he adds. As he sits on a park bench in his hometown, Cushing stresses the role arts and culture can play in attracting return visitors to the Yukon. “I hope that registers, because an awful lot of people come back to places because they had a total experience.” Perhaps he’s thinking of a total experience such as dancing under the stars on a hot summer night, as music pours from a nearby bandshell. 

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