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A profile of John Perlin from 1989

The CBC Radio Morning Show played an entertaining item this morning about an event roasting John Perlin, the province's former director of cultural affairs. A number of local celeb's, including John Crosbie, Shannie Duff and Donna Butt, took some quite humorous pokes at Perlin, one of the more enigmatic and, to some, infuriating contributors to the cultural development of our province. It reminded me of a Sunday Express profile that I wrote about Perlin back in 1989, on the occasion of his retirement. I scanned my files, found it and have decided to post it here.

King of Arts

John Perlin retires as province's cultural boss


Sunday Express Reporter

There's no middle ground with John Perlin: he's either admired or despised.

In his 22 years as Director of Cultural Affairs, in charge of the province's six arts and culture centres, Mr. Perlin is partly responsible for setting the cultural agenda for this province. As well, Mr. Perlin has been responsible for the organization of all royal visits to the province since Prince Philip's visit in 1974.

Last week, it all came to an end.

Taking advantage of the early retirement package being offered to long-serving bureaucrats in the civil service, Mr. Perlin stepped down from his post, as of March 31. Thanks to a soon-to-be closed legislative loophole, Mr. Perlin was able to purchase unearned years of pension contributions, enabling him to retire at age 55 with 70 per cent of his salary.

And there are those who will say it's about time.

"There was not a lot of love in (the 70s) from artists toward John," said Chris Brookes, founder of the Mummers Troupe and a long-time critic of Mr. Perlin's policies. "It wasn't toward John personally, but toward what he represented, which was complete abdication of cultural policy on behalf of the provincial government."

That's a complaint echoed by many in the artistic community, but even Mr. Perlin's sharpest critics will acknowledge his charm, energy and intellect.

"Personally, I like him a great deal," said freelance arts critic Peter Gard. "I understand his dilemma at the Arts and Culture Centre... and that they've got to appeal to very broad tastes. Saying all that, one has to ask over the last 22 years... what the centre has contributed to the culture of the province?

"The measure of a good administrator is keeping up with the leading edge of the arts community," Mr. Gard continued, "and John Perlin has always found 101 reasons to steer away from that edge."

"He was always clever and efficient," said actor and comedian Andy Jones. "I just wish he'd been on our side. I never felt he was sympathetic to the emerging local arts scene, and was more interested in culture with a capital C'."

But John Perlin has apologies for no one. "My conscience is clear," he said, during a lengthy interview with The Sunday Express, during which Mr. Perlin revealed an interest in entering politics. "I have done the best possible job, given the parameters I was given to work in, for the government - who was my employer - and the artistic community. There are some people... who will be for me and others who will be against me. If everybody loved me, I don't think I could have done my job properly."

As a driving force behind Rising Tide Theatre, which now books a subscription season of theatre at the centre, Donna Butt has worked closely with John Perlin.

"He is tough and stubborn and strong-minded," Ms. Butt said. "He had a very strong vision of what he felt culture should be in this province, and there are some who say he imposed his will. But as somebody to work with... while he sometimes wanted me to make different choices, he never did impose that on me.

"Sometimes I thought he harkened back to the glory days of the upper class to prove a point," Ms. Butt continued, "but generally I found him incredibly fair..."

Mr. Perlin was indeed born upper class,' into the merchant family that built its fortune through I.F. Perlin and Co. Ltd., a wholesale drygoods firm that operated from 1890 to 1971. Both of John's parents - esteemed journalist Albert B. Perlin and social activist Vera Perlin, both deceased - were named to the Order of Canada. Vera was the daughter of Sir John Crosbie, patriarch of the famous - some might say infamous - Crosbie clan.

Young John studied at Holloway School and Bishop Feild School in St. John's, then at Appleby College, a private school in Oakville, Ontario. He was a sharp student, skipping from grade 6 here to grade 8 in Oakville without missing a beat. "Which shows," he said, "that the Newfoundland education system of the 40s couldn't have been so bad."

In spite of the material comforts guaranteed by birthright, John said his childhood was not a privileged one. "I just don't think people paid any attention to so-called privilege'. As a child you certainly weren't conscious of it. If I thought about it, perhaps my friends didn't have cars or didn't have a house as big as mine, but I don't ever remember it being a concern."

After Appleby College, John entered McGill University, but grew restless and dropped his studies to come back and work at the family firm.

As a young man, John Perlin developed an interest in the performing arts, working as a volunteer organizer with the Dominion Drama Festival and the Newfoundland Drama Festival, both amateur events.

In 1966, Premier Smallwood let known his intention to pass the administration of the newly-built Arts and Culture Centre over to Memorial University - an idea that appalled John Perlin. "There were a number of us who felt that would be a disaster. If the arts centre were for public use, then it should certainly not be operated by the university, which might have its own considerations, rather than the public's."

When Mr. Perlin met the premier, in a receiving line at the Centennial Train reception at Memorial Stadium, he didn't waste the moment on a handshake.

"I said, Mr. Smallwood, I don't like what you're proposing to do with the arts centre.' He stopped the line, and we had this conversation for about five minutes, and he said, Look, after we're through with this line, I want to talk to you'."

They continued the conversation a little later, and the premier told Mr. Perlin that he had made some persuasive arguments. Several months later, Mr. Perlin received an invitation to lunch with the premier, who reiterated that Mr. Perlin's arguments were solid but apparently still hadn't made a decision.

Mr. Perlin next encountered the premier in a receiving line at a reception for the Dominion Drama Festival. "He said, You're quite right. I won't give it to Memorial University if you'll come run it for me'."

Thus began a remarkable 22-year odyssey, for both Mr. Perlin and the cultural evolution of this province. The provincial government had not defined a cultural policy at the time - this was the same premier that had advised Newfoundlanders to burn their boats - so Mr. Perlin's mandate was basically up to him.

"It was very unclear," he said. "I was to make the building operational, and get the public library moved in... The other thing that I tried to do, in my naivete, I suppose, was to bring the building onstream at a reasonable cost."

Mr. Smallwood made the centre a compulsory stopover for any visiting dignitaries, and the guest book began to swell with important signatures. The first name in the book, Mr. Perlin said, was Field Marshall Montgomery.

"The funny thing is, when Joey opened the guest book and saw Montgomery's signature was the first one, I had to get another page pasted in... He said, I built it and I'm going to put the first signature in it and that's the way it is.' That's what I always liked about Joey ... he always knew what he wanted."

Mr. Perlin noticed that Memorial University was operating a very small gallery in the basement of what was then the library building, so he invited the university to come operate the exhibition rooms in the arts centre. The president of Memorial, Lord Taylor of Harlow, agreed and the MUN Art Gallery is still based there today, under the direction of Pat Grattan. But back then, the curator was Peter Bell, a visual artist and art critic with The Evening Telegram, and a man Perlin was to lock horns with repeatedly.

"Peter Bell was probably a very talented man as an artist," Mr. Perlin said, "but with absolutely no administrative ability. So it became a problem over the years... I'd be getting phone calls from people saying Your art gallery hasn't been paying its bill for this or that.' I'd have to go to Peter (and he'd say), f --k off, you're nothing but a f--ing cultural philistine.'

"So there was not what I would call a great deal of love lost."

According to Mr. Perlin, he was not the only person who had difficulty with Peter Bell. Lord Taylor himself was often at loggerheads with the outspoken artist, a conflict that came to the fore at one memorable art gallery advisory board meeting.

"Bruce Woodland, Lord Taylor's executive assistant, said to me, Look, if you ever see Lord Taylor eating his handkerchief, watch out because he's getting ready to explode.'

"So I was sitting across from Lord Taylor and Peter Bell was there, carrying on about the gallery, and suddenly I saw the pocket handkerchief being pulled out and then being fed into his mouth. The upper plate was being flicked in and out, and eventually the handkerchief just disappeared, and Bruce was kicking me under the table. And with that, Lord Taylor said, Peter, I have had all the f -ing nonsense I am going to have from you for one f --ing day. Shut your f--ing mouth!'

"He was quite an extraordinary character."

The university couldn't fire Peter Bell because he had tenure. However, Lord Taylor reclassified Mr. Bell and made him Artist in Ordinary, a new position that was conveniently phased out after some time. Peter Bell claimed he was fired, but Lord Taylor simply called it "a lateral move." And although Mr. Bell was no longer gallery curator, he still took jabs at Mr. Perlin in his arts columns in The Telegram.

"Peter Bell wrote very close to the bone. It got to the point where... at one point I rang (Telegram publisher) Steve Herder and said, Look, I'm maybe going to ask my solicitors to look at some of these columns, to determine if they're libelous.' (Mr. Bell) would say that I wouldn't know art from one end of my little finger to the other. It used to get quite nasty."

Mr. Perlin claims that The Telegram eventually "cut Peter Bell off."

Next to Mr. Bell, avant garde actor Chris Brookes was perhaps Mr. Perlin's most outspoken philosophical nemesis. In his book A Public Nuisance - A History of the Mummers Troupe,' Mr. Brookes accused Mr. Perlin of establishing a cultural policy that reflected his mercantile family's British roots, while ignoring an emerging indigenous arts scene.

"The problem was... there were no touring companies of any stature available in Canada, and we were trying to fill a need," Mr. Perlin said. "And I think it is true that there were people who wanted to see ordinary theatre. We tried an experiment with (plays from) Britain - some worked, some didn't - but there still are no major touring theatre companies in Canada.

"(Brookes) made allusions to me as if I were the grand inquisitor who controlled all these things," Mr. Perlin said. "But he attributed a hell of a lot more power to me than I had."

In October of 1978, Mr. Perlin attended a gala event at a Toronto hotel, during which he was to be presented with an honorary membership in the Royal Canadian Academy, for his contribution to the arts. An unidentified man emerged from the crowd, and threw a cake at Mr. Perlin, aiming for his face. The cake allegedly had the inscription, From the folks back home.'

"I was told... I'd acquired a grudging admiration from the people involved, because I had never responded or even let on that the incident had taken place. It didn't do what it was intended to do, which was prevent me from accepting the honorary membership... because the fellow threw it prematurely and it only glanced off my shoulder. Since I was staying in that hotel, I was able to get quietly out and get the jacket cleaned off before anybody knew I had left."

Mr. Perlin said he knows who orchestrated the affair. "I discovered... that Brookes and Peter Bell were involved; they were taking up money to pay for the fellow to go throw the cake. Peter Bell probably instigated it, and was aided and abetted... by Brookes. I have no real proof but the mere fact that Brookes chooses to write about it in his book is a clear indicator to me... And there was no question that Peter Bell was involved."

The Sunday Express contacted Chris Brookes in Toronto, where he works as a radio producer with CBC, and asked if he was involved in the incident.

"I always have said neither yes nor no about it," Brookes said. "I've always been flattered that he would think I was involved. I'd hate to say No it wasn't me,' for fear of ruining my reputation! I'd hate to go down in history as the guy who didn't have enough spirit to throw a pie at John Perlin."

Peter Bell is now retired and living in Scotland, but Mr. Perlin still bristles at the mention of his name. "I will not dignify Peter Bell, no matter how brilliant an artist he is, by buying one of his paintings. Though I may admire some of his work, there is no goddam way I'd put a nickel in his pocket. That's being honest, not hypocritical... He behaved so outrageously towards me, both in print and as an artist."

In 1971, the position of Director of Cultural Affairs was created and John Perlin stepped neatly in to fill it. Perlin's mandate became broader: in addition to running six arts and culture centres, he was now responsible for co-ordinating any out-of-province tours of local artists, actors and musicians that came under provincial sponsorship. He also oversaw visits to this province of dignitaries from the provinces, the federal government, and other countries.

One tour that Mr. Perlin said could warrant "a book on its own" was the 25th anniversary of Confederation celebrations, with state dinners held in various locales around the province, hosting a premier or high-ranking official from any of the provinces or territories.

"Frank Moores insisted on taking a string quartet from the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra to the Legion Hall in Head of Bay d'Espoir and the only place it could be put to perform was up behind the head table. Frank went virtually berserk because all this noise was going on behind him."

Another duty assigned Mr. Perlin was the co-ordination of all royal visits, including those by Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, the Prince and Princess of Wales, and the King and Queen of Belgium. Of them all, Mr. Perlin was most impressed with The Queen.

"I found her a very warm and human person... I got to know the Queen reasonably well. In the sense that you develop a knowledge of people with a good sense of humor, and both she and Philip had (that)... They're very much human beings like the rest of us - they enjoy a good story and a good laugh.

"The Queen and Prince Philip - and I know this to be true of most members of the Royal family - know the host is going to be nervous in dealing with them, so they do their best to put you at ease."

Of the other Royal visitors, Mr. Perlin said Charles and Edward handled themselves well. His reaction to Princess Diana was a little less favorable. "That's not printable," he said, adding "I think the problem was... she is very young - 10 or 12 years younger than he is - and she's almost the newest PR thing for the Royal family. Wherever she went, she was mobbed. It got to be a horrible feeling, in a way... She was very nervous about the press, almost a paranoia that had to be dealt with.

"But you know what some of the electronic press is like anyway. If they could, they'd stick the microphone up her skirt. And it almost came to that out at Cape Spear, when they opened the historic park... they just mobbed her."

Mr. Perlin's relationship with the Royal family will continue even into retirement, albeit on a reduced level, as he is also national president of the Duke of Edinburgh's Awards, an organization headed by Prince Philip. In fact, retirement for Mr. Perlin will probably mean a transfer of energies into other pursuits, including volunteer work for numerous community and service groups (Mr. Perlin has served on scores of such committees over the years).

And then there's politics. A well-known, well-connected individual, Mr. Perlin would not rule out a new career in public life.

"Now, for the first time since 1967, I will be able to work openly for a political party."

Mr. Perlin said he wouldn't run in the recently-announced provincial election, adding that, "I suppose you never say never to anything."

For now, Mr. Perlin is more interested in municipal politics. "I think, if you're going to get your feet wet, that's probably the best place to start.

"I think there is a job to be done and I think the city deserves better. But I've never been in politics and I don't know whether I can hack it or not. You've got to have a thick skin."

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