11/20/2012 04:47 EST | Updated 01/20/2013 05:12 EST

National Arts Centre in its dream stage for Canada's 150th birthday in 2017

OTTAWA - Walking into the National Arts Centre's boxy concrete fortress is like a red-plush, spiky-chandelier time warp back to 1967, that golden centennial year that produced so many important buildings and plenty of hazy Expo memories.

Now that Canada is fast approaching its 150th birthday, the NAC — just steps away from the iconic silhouettes of Parliament Hill — isn't about to kick it old school. It's dreaming big for 2017, both artistically and architecturally.

The NAC orchestra plans to go on a major international tour to China and later the United Kingdom. The centre will blow it out with shows for the birthday year, and there might even be a transformation of the building.

"The main thing is to make sure that road to 2017 is paved with a range of really exciting events and exciting performances here, across the country, internationally," said NAC president and CEO Peter Herrndorf.

"It's all part of waving the flag for the 150h birthday and the people here are very excited about it."

Herrndorf has overseen a successful run at the NAC over the past 13 years.

Despite the retro look of the place, patrons still rock out to Feist, bring their children to orchestra performances, and gossip about the comings and goings of the NAC's celebrity chef. In 2010-11, the centre posted a surplus for the tenth time in a dozen years.

But there's also been that not-so-small matter of $1.9 million in government spending cuts that hit the NAC directly this year, and layoffs across the public service — a key customer base for the centre.

The show must go on, said Herrndorf, who doesn't believe in shelving plans. He said it's all about redirecting resources and leveraging funds wherever and whenever they can in the private sector and elsewhere.

"One of the things about the arts centre is that even in times of austerity, we continue to dream, and we continue to move ahead on major projects, so really starting last year the road to 2017 began," said Herrndorf, 72, who recently agreed to stay on another couple of years.

The federal government itself hasn't yet laid out its road map to 2017 — it's not even clear how it will distribute funds or how much it will earmark for the occasion.

But the NAC isn't waiting. It's currently in the midst of its "northern year," celebrating the arts of northern Canada. Next year, the orchestra plans to embark on a 17-day tour of China which will include 80 to 90 performances and educational events across that country.

In 2014, the idea is for some major events in the United Kingdom to commemorate Canada's entry into the First World War.

The months leading up to Canada Day 2017 will be the most intense. Herrndorf talks about original shows to be commissioned and retrospectives of the country's most important artists to be co-ordinated with other centres across the country.

Over the past several years, the NAC has been hosting a series focused on a different part of the country — "the Prairie Scene" or the "B.C. Scene," for example. In 2017, the program culminates with "the Canada Scene," bringing hundreds of artists to the capital.

"I still talk to people who came of age in 1967, and the degree to which those experiences helped shape them over the next, 10, 15, 20 years. The hope is that we can do that through the performing arts in the period leading up to 2017, and have the same kind of magic moments that people had in 1967," said Herrndorf.

The Commons heritage committee recently recommended that the government focus some of its spending for the 150th birthday on refurbishing Canada's existing cultural institutions, rather than building new ones.

Heritage Minister James Moore hasn't responded to that report yet, but the concept fits in well with what the NAC has been studying for the building.

The centre sits on a prime piece of real estate in downtown Ottawa — across from the National War Memorial, within sight of the Parliament Buildings and sitting right on the Rideau Canal. Trouble is, the front doors are down a curving driveway by the canal, hidden away from all the busy pedestrian and tourist traffic.

The NAC wants to turn that around in order to build a better relationship with the community it's located in.

"We think it's a wonderful way to make the National Arts Centre and the arts much more accessible, but we're in the early stages of all that and that is very much in the kind of dream stage, but they're good dreams," said Herrndorf.

Inside the NAC is a whole other issue. The place is aging, and it's not just the threadbare patches on the red plush carpeting. The production facilities can't always be described as state-of-the-art.

Over to you, minister Moore.

"The question is, when these kinds of organizations go through a rejuvenation, usually it has to do with a country celebrating an anniversary, it has to do with a passion of a group of people, a minister," Herrndorf said.

"The hope is that all of those things in this particular case coincide."