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Back  |  June 02, 2011  | 


On June 1, 2011, the Calgary Herald published a feature article about Mayor Nenshi's passion for the arts as an important part of our healthy community. Here is an excerpt from that article by journalist Heath McCoy.

- Daorcey from Mayor Nenshi's team

Portrait of a passion: Even from his early days, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has been an ardent supporter of the arts

It made perfect sense that the Calgary arts community championed Naheed Nenshi when he was elected mayor in an upset victory last fall.

After all, the 39-year-old, Harvard-educated Mount Royal University professor had been a part of that community for years. He was one of them.

A lifelong theatre lover and an amateur actor in his younger days. A "tarpy" at the Calgary Folk Music Festival who lined up every summer with the faithful to claim a spot in front of the mainstage.

An insatiable film buff who would typically take in 30 to 40 art house films at the Calgary International Film Festival, while, at the same time, unabashed in his excitement for such unpretentious popcorn fare as the upcoming Green Lantern flick.

The former (and youngest ever) chairman of the Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts.

Nenshi wasn't merely passionate about the arts, notes past Epcor president Colin Jackson, he was also highly proactive in the field.

"He's a participant, he's engaged," says Jackson. "He doesn't just buy a ticket. He's put personal time in."

The leader of the purple wave is up front about where his heart lies.

"Every mayor has had their own pet (cause) and, for me, it's always been Calgary's arts community," Nenshi says.

That's no secret to those who know Nenshi best. According to his sister, Shaheen Nenshi Nathoo, her younger brother gravitated toward the arts from a young age.

The son of working class South-Asian immigrants from Tanzania, Nenshi taught himself to read at the age of two.

"He learned to read the TV Guide so he could help my gramma find her shows," says Shaheen.

Soon, Nenshi could be found hiding under the kitchen table in the family's Marlborough home, devouring comic books. "That was his first foray into the arts," jokes Shaheen.

By the time he was in junior high, Nenshi had developed an interest in theatre and began appearing in productions both at school and within the IsmailiMuslim community.

Among his roles were Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Reverend John Hale in The Crucible.

He continued acting into his first year at the University of Calgary where, while working on his commerce degree, he had a minor role in a campus production, The Government Inspector.

"I was standing onstage with these talented actors... and I realized: 'Oh, I'm really bad at this,' " Nenshi says. "I thought I'd better stop before I embarrassed myself."

But instead of giving up on the arts, Shaheen says her brother began to channel his passions, serving the community the best way he knew how -as a business administrator.

As president of the U of C student's union, he took an active role in the campus arts scene and found a summer job doing marketing for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. "I helped write the first radio ads for Mozart On The Mountain," he recalls.

Even when he moved away, earning his Master's degree in public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Nenshi's heart belonged to Calgary. Making a connection with Harvard alumni Jackson, Nenshi focused his thesis project on creating a strategic business plan for the non-profit Epcor Centre. Jackson was so impressed with Nenshi's work that the plan was adopted.

"It was pretty substantial," says Jackson. "It was called Thinking Like A Business and he was respecting the spirit of the arts, but bringing a business rigour to what we were doing. It was most welcome."

Jackson remembers Epcor's chairman at the time commenting: "Mark my words... that Nenshi has a great future in public service and politics."

When he returned to Calgary, Nenshi joined Epcor's board of directors, becoming chairman in 2004.

Today, with Calgary on the cusp of becoming a cultural centre - one with a serious bid to be declared cultural capital of Canada - Nenshi is the ideal man to be leading the city, Jackson believes.

"He understands how arts and culture fit into the bigger picture of economic prosperity," he says.

Excitement over Nenshi has bubbled over into the arts community outside of Calgary, too. No less a pundit than author Margaret Atwood rhapsodized about our hip new mayor on Twitter, offering to trade him for his Toronto counterpart, that branded enemy of culture vultures, the conservative Rob Ford.

Indeed, when Nenshi spent a week in Toronto earlier this year, giving speeches and promoting Calgary, he was feted as nothing less than a political rock star, the media declaring "Nenvy" that, of all places, Cowtown elected the first Muslim mayor of a major Canadian city.

There did seem to be a certain rock 'n' roll element to the Nenshi mystique. He campaigned at popular music venues such as Broken City and utilized social media to create a buzz with the do-it-yourself deftness of the cleverest indie rock bands.

He often appeared to be an outsider. An underdog, non-establishment candidate out to clean up City Hall. The punchy politician in purple who took on the cops over police budget.

When he won the election, many of Nenshi's supporters posted the Prince song Purple Rain on their Facebook pages, a tribute to his campaign colour.

The mayor acknowledges all of this, but he stresses: "We have to tread carefully... You did see a bit of DIY ethic. But it wasn't rebellious or irresponsible... While an outsider, I wasn't someone who was breaking all the rules. I was saying 'I understand how to make the system work better.'"

And he's got the inside track on being a traffic cop at the intersection of economics and arts and culture. He calls it "the ballet factor."

"Everyone wants to live in a city where there's a ballet, even if they themselves never go to the ballet," he says. "Even if I hate the ballet... when I read that (Alberta Ballet's) Joni Mitchell production was reviewed favourably in the New York Times, I gain pride in my own city...

"You need to build a city that is attractive to live in and that means investing in the things that make life worth living. Yes, that means snow removal, but it also means sports, public transit, parks and recreation. And it means arts and culture. too."

On this front, Nenshi feels Calgary has already achieved "critical mass." He rejects the oft held belief that as a conservative city it's a struggle to get people to support the arts here. But, he's also quick to add, "we've still got a lot to learn."

There's more to this story. You can read the full article at the Calgary Herald.


Categories: Interviews

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