“Build the strength of your people”

Al Cushing may be leaving, but he’s not going anywhere.

When he steps into retirement at the end of this month, one aspect of the Yukon Arts Centre’s evolution during his nine years at the helm pleases Cushing the most.

“I think the highlight is that the Yukon Arts Centre (YAC) has gotten closer to achieving its mandate than ever before, which is to be an arts centre for the Yukon. It ain’t there yet, but we’re getting there,” he says.

The evidence, he suggests, lies in the extent to which the organization has moved beyond the walls of its 25-year-old hilltop edifice on the Yukon College endowment lands.

“We get out of our walls into the Old Fire Hall. We get out of our walls into Art House Carcross. We’ve reached out to KIAC in Dawson and the folks in the Junction,” Cushing says.

“Touring has opened up, and I think this year we’ll have our first territorial touring happening, trying to make that arts centre be what it’s supposed to be.”

While he’s giving up his day job at YAC, the New Brunswick native and his Ontario-born wife, artist and activist Linda Leon, have no plans to leave their adopted home.

“We love it here. We don’t have any desire to go anywhere else, so we’ll be staying around.”

The couple met in Calgary in 1978 during the crew preview for the movie, Superman. Cushing jokes that it was a fortune cookie that persuaded them to move to Whitehorse in the first place (see What’s Up Yukon, August 21, 2014).

Now, after winding up his third three-year contract as chief executive officer – or executive director, or general manager (“I don’t care, they’re the same titles.”) – he has no intention of severing his connection with YAC.

He plans to continue assisting the Yukon Arts Foundation on a project that has been on the drawing board for a while: expanding the public gallery and providing more storage space to accommodate the Yukon Permanent Art Collection better.

“We’re also looking at the possible creation of multi-uses spaces that could help the performance community grow by being able to provide rehearsal and performance spaces, and possibly expanding the lobby, so that it can become a revenue-generator.”

Cushing can recall very few disappointments during his “very positive” nine-year stint.

“Obviously, things take longer than you want, but I was prepared for that. Some things move slowly, but they are moving forward,” he says.

“I would like to have gotten the extension on the art gallery done before I left, but there’s all sort of reasons why not. Other than that, we got the new sound system done, and we’ve built up a really positive staff that’s doing exciting things.”

Among those exciting things, Cushing cites a major board and staff retreat three years ago that reaffirmed the centre’s territory-wide mandate, as well as a “hugely successful” summit of Yukon creators and arts presenters in the fall of 2014.

From its founding by the territorial government in the early 1990s, Cushing says, the YAC’s role in serving and encouraging the arts in communities beyond the capital is unique among Canada’s provinces and territories.

The key to making it successful, he contends, does not lie with one person, even the one at the top.

“It’s all about people. It’s the people you have in your staff that you empower and who do the work,” he says.

“Being lazy is really good, because the whole point is empowering the other people making the stuff happen. Any individual can only do one thing, but 10 individuals can make 10 things happen. Or maybe they can even make 15, because there’s some synthesis between them.”

As for words of advice the outgoing CEO would pass on to his successor, the message is simple:

“Build the strength of your people, and then respect the community and the work that is already being done in the community.”

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